Review: Substitute for Love by Karin Kallmaker [review by Lori L. Lake]

Substitute For Love
Karin Kallmaker
Naiad Press –
[reissued by Bella Books] October 2001, 288 pp, $12.95, ISBN: 1562802658
Substitute For Love is a well-plotted, intelligent, and nuanced book made all the more excellent by the way the author has woven thematic threads throughout.
Holly thinks she is a regular, run-of-the-mill, straight woman. She has abandoned a promising math career because her long-term boyfriend, Clay, insisted, just as her overbearing aunt/foster mother had done when Holly first spoke of her desire to teach. Holly is, in actuality, an honest-to-goodness math wizard. Not only is she good at the subject, but she loves it. Instead of following her dream to be a math teacher and researcher, she works in an actuarial office so that her boyfriend can be a teacher. She and Clay live rather predictably, with Clay’s needs always coming first. “They had worked hard to keep everything the same from day to day, as if tomorrow would never come and neither of them would ever change.”
After ten years, Holly is finally ready to crack out of her shell. For this, she is not prepared, but as Kallmaker tells us, “When dams burst, floods are inevitable.” Holly’s shocking realization that she is attracted to women begins a series of events that lead her to the other main character in the book, Reyna.
Unlike Holly, Reyna knows she is lost, but she is powerless to change her circumstances without harming her mother over whom her father has a chokehold. Reyna chooses to live a double life—one life that satisfies her domineering and over-reaching father, and the other life a series of one night stands carried out Friday nights after slipping away from the private detectives her father has watching her. Reyna works at her father’s conservative think tank doing a job that is morally and ethically repugnant to her, but it pays the medical bills that keep her mother alive. She is lost and spiraling further downward daily.
But then, Holly and Reyna meet and sparks fly.
In addition to math/numbers analogies and themes, I loved the leitmotif of the sextant. Lost on a hike with friends, Holly is able to use a sextant and math and mechanical skills to determine longitude and latitude in a key scene. But what she can do externally takes her much longer internally, and we are far into the book before “she accepted that even with two mirrors, the horizon, and a familiar star to navigate by, she still wouldn’t know where she was.” Neither Holly nor Reyna know where they are, at least not until a lot of issues start getting worked out.
I liked the fact that this book was not a typical romance, nor was I able to guess how it would turn out. I wanted it to have a happy ending, but right up to the end, I wasn’t sure how that ending would look. It is to Kallmaker’s credit that she has infused a genre book with such life, energy, and unpredictability. Even the title has more than one meaning, with the word “substitute” working on multiple levels. This is an example of lesbian fiction of the highest quality, well-written and capably edited, with memorable scenes and language. Highly recommended.
Lori L. Lake has been an author, editor, teacher, retreat leader, and creativity coach, and, until a few years ago, a book reviewer as well. She’s written a dozen novels, two short story collections, and edited four anthologies. Her work has won three Goldies, three Rainbow Awards, the Alice B Medal, and the Ann Bannon Award. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and is currently working on her next novel and a nonfiction writing book about creativity. Website: