I’ve never been comfortable with happiness.
As a child, I was quiet. As an adolescent, filled with angst. I became accustomed to isolation, accustomed to a feeling of want. Life is hard, life is lonely, and there is a depth to accepting these truths as facts. It’s a story I wrapped myself within.
Sadness hurts less when you tell yourself it’s intrinsic to your identity and when you tell yourself that identity has value. Like most of the stories we tell ourselves, it’s a coping mechanism. Like most of the stories we tell ourselves, it’s fiction.
Michelle Hart’s debut novel, We Do What We Do in the Dark, begins with a deceptive simplicity: “When Mallory was a freshman in college, she had an affair with a woman twice her age.”
It’s less an introduction to a character and a story and more a declaration of a subgenre. This is going to be a lesbian age gap romance in a school setting like so many stories before. But as I continued, delving deeper into Mallory’s thoughts, deeper into Mallory’s past and future, the value of this specific telling became clear. It’s such a common trope, I sometimes forget how rarely it’s done well.
This isn’t the first work of art to take this common queer experience in fiction and in life and uncover its depth. The Price of Salt does this. Jacqueline Audry’s 1950 film Olivia does this as well. But Hart’s novel is such a triumph because it goes beyond this one defining relationship. To Mallory, her affair with who is only called “the woman” was life-changing and all-consuming. Hart demonstrates how this is both true and false. By the time Mallory met the woman, she was already a person in a place to do so. Mallory’s understanding of herself was shaped long before she found a middle-aged German vessel to rest within.
During the first sections of the book focused on the affair, Mallory is forward in her actions, passive in her thoughts. She is not the youthful seductress or the innocent victim. She’s just a teenager in a new environment who recently lost her mom and is looking for her own version of belonging. Like so many of us at that age, she seeks the unattainable because she’s frightened of attainment. She doesn’t want to get close to anyone, doesn’t want to be controlled by anyone, but she’s still so filled with need. Sometimes we seek people we know can’t hurt us because they’re unavailable — they’re often who hurt us the most.
The book is at its best once it moves to the past. Through her relationships with her best friend Hannah — and with Hannah’s mother — we’re reminded that so many people have to decondition the learning that queerness is something to hide. It’s not just queerness. It’s illness too. It’s happiness too. It’s the lack of happiness. The title may refer to the central affair but it refers to so much in the suffocating suburban culture from which Mallory emerges.
Mrs. Allard laughed once, a little absently, as if distracted. “She’s coming back in a few weeks, for summer break. Obviously, that means we won’t be seeing much of each other.”
“Obviously,” Mallory said, trying to hide how much this hurt her. While she had come to prize this private time with Mrs. Allard as something that was only theirs—only hers—she had also become, in this moment, weary over so much of her life becoming clouded by secrecy and loss.
The final sections of the book feel heavy with this context and with their threads of grounded hope. Mallory’s journey is to come out of hiding. Mallory’s journey is to realize that happiness can be desired — and that she’s someone who can achieve it. Mallory’s journey is to let the light in.
When we’re young, we relate to older people who are themselves young. We read maturity where it is not deserved. We think if someone is older and we’re similar to them then we must seem older too. We rarely consider that they’re meeting us more than we’re meeting them. We rarely consider that we can achieve more than what our models have modeled.
I’ve never been comfortable with happiness but lately I’ve started to try. I’ve taken it less as a fact about me and more as a product of my early years. Like Mallory, I express gratitude for the experiences that shaped me. Like Mallory, I reach beyond.
We Do What We Do in the Dark by Michelle Hart is available now.