‘A Single Year’ by Dawn Mueller

As the joke goes, when a lesbian goes on a second date, she brings a U-haul. We all know the kind to support this stereotype — those queer women who swing from one multi-year relationship to the next, with nary a lonely night between girlfriends.

So what happens when someone ends their seriously long term relationship and finds themselves looking to date casually in a world where so many lesbians are nesting by their six month anniversary?

Chicago writer Dawn Mueller’s first memoir, A Single Year (CreateSpace), sets out to chronicle this conundrum. Fresh from an unhappy and sexless nine year relationship, she finds herself single and in her thirties — lonely, shy, and hungry for whatever could come next, as long as it’s not another case of shacking up for a couple of calendar years.

What’s more, Mueller doesn’t partake in drinking or drugs, those social lubricants that color the majority of queer social scenes. She’s been sober for several years and talks liberally about her involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Described as “Augusten Burroughs meets Bridget Jones,” A Single Year cuts its teeth in several places, but overall gives an honest and generous portrait of one lesbian’s adventures in the dating world.

The majority of the book takes on a diary-like quality, with a sometimes cringe-worthy amount of exact detail. This is most apparent in the beginning of the memoir, when we join Mueller on a few first dates with women she’s been introduced to through various means. It’s nothing if not relatable — the awkward phone calls, the flat conversation, the bad nervous energy that can mushroom on a chemistry-less date. Mueller records every detail.

What’s most heartbreaking is how earnest and open-hearted Mueller is on these dates, sometimes leaving in tears, frustrated by the lack of mutual interest. Self-pity and self-doubt consume Mueller when rejected, as surely anyone who’s ever put their heart on the line can relate to.

The memoir picks up significantly when Mueller nails what she’s really looking for–casual sex. She becomes a full character when engaging for the first time with Mimi and Neal, a young married couple she meets online for a threesome.

Having an earnest narrator like Mueller walk readers through all of the juicy details (the reader is spared no detail in the bedroom, either) is at least a titillating experience, showing what many readers have maybe thought about (casual encounters, new sexual adventures) but never tried.

As their sexual relations continue, Mueller finds herself getting more and more drawn in, until she’s faced with the emotions she’s tried avoid.

As we follow Mueller through her year of casual sex and casual dating, there’s a terrific upturn towards the second half of the book, as Mueller’s openness to new things grows into self-confidence that soon has her attracting new women of interest left and right. It’s akin to watching a friend get through a rough patch, and what’s more, the narrative brightens as she finds her voice in the final chapters.

Mueller’s is a unique perspective that hasn’t seen too much representation in popular lesbian memoir — she often talks about not feeling hip enough for the nightlife, and makes for an interesting case study as the sober lesbian at a drag king show, a swingers party, or wherever her adventures take her.

The book sometimes felt like a older, sober version of Michelle Tea’s hit memoir Valencia, without the poetic romance. It’s also jarring to see her write about her AA life in such an off-handed way. We never learn what drove Mueller to get sober, but she references twelve step culture throughout the book. And Mueller’s view of lesbian identity often seems to strike a chord that may be generational.

She’s highly conscious of what it means to be a lesbian sleeping with a woman and her husband (“Real lesbians don’t suck dick,” she writes), where as younger writers might gather all of her experiences under the umbrella of being queer and leave it at that.

Mueller sometimes pokes fun at the lesbian stereotypes (she often laments the Birkenstock-wearing folksinger types she encounters out and about), but ultimately she’s looking for her place in the lesbian landscape. Thankfully, by the end of the memoir she’s found just that.

The book’s best victory is that it’s written — there’s a thread that Mueller pulls at throughout the book, which is her desire to write. (“You should just submit,” one date tells her when Mueller sheepishly admits to writing but not sending material out. “What have you got to lose?”)

A few other key moments foreshadow Mueller’s memoir coming to fruition, including her use of the creativity self-help book The Artist’s Way and an invitation to attend a writing class. In the epilogue, she wraps up all of her various dating escapades, concluding them with perhaps the best byproduct of Mueller’s single year: “I made it to Nancy’s writing class,” she writes, “and here.” It takes courage to date and love, and even more courage to write.
by Dawn Mueller
Paperback, 9780615431048, 268pp
February 2011