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I think this is Renaults only contemporary novel (its set in 1937; she wrote it during WWII) and (maybe?) her only one with a lesbian couple.The Vintage edition includes an afterword Renault wrote in 1983, which is interesting but rather annoying because she mostly uses it as a soapbox to tell the younger LGB to stop marching around demanding that everyone respect their differences. She frames this as an explanation of why she wrote The Friendly Young Ladies -- she wanted to show that people in same-sex relationships were perfectly capable of getting through life without grand tragedy a la The Well of Loneliness, and that in the light of great suffering such as that caused by war, she couldnt feel sorry for herself for being different in a way that she could so easily downplay in front of unsympathetic heterosexuals. What a nice generation gap, Mary Renault!Lillian Fadermans 2003 afterword annoyed me just about as much, though. Look Dr. Faderman: if someone is in a long-term open relationship with another woman, and both women have affairs with men for the first 14 years of this relationship, and then they stop that and live together monogamously for the rest of their lives, and during all of this they refuse to identify as lesbians and call themselves bisexuals instead --- any chance you could really respect that instead of sounding so skeptical about it?Anyway, the story.It starts off focusing on Elsie, a painfully naive seventeen-year-old girl who decides to run away from her horrible parents and find her older sister, who also ran away from home. Elsie imagines that Leo will have grown up into one of the varieties of sophisticated woman categorized in the romance novels Elsie reads. But she finds that Leo hasnt changed at all from the tomboy she remembers; Leo still loves messing about in boats and makes a living by writing trashy Westerns under a male pseudonym. She lives in a houseboat with the actually sophisticated Helen, a technical illustrator of surgical procedures.The other two characters of importance are men -- Peter, a young doctor whose favorite method in treating women is to make them fall in love with him, and who has utterly succeeded with Elsie; and Joe, an adventurous, empathetic novelist and Leos best friend.Much of The Friendly Young Ladies is an absolute masterwork of double meanings. Helen and Leo are a perfect team in giving Elsie what she needs while protecting their relationship and in getting exactly what they want out of Peter without giving him anything more than he deserves (which is very little). They, and the way Renault writes about them, are brilliant and hilarious.The rest of The Friendly Young Ladies is more difficult -- its about Leos relationship with Joe. I thought that what happens in this part of the story was quite ambiguous, but both afterwords discuss it as though (view spoiler)[its more firmly established that Leo will leave Helen for Joe. I was surprised by this because I thought that the way Renault describes Leos crying at the end over Helens dress that shes found while packing up her own clothes -- first like the crying of a beaten boy and then the tears of a woman -- could mean that she changed her mind in the middle, and the later tears were crying for the loss of Joe. (I dont think this because I think Leos womanliness should have more to do with her heterosexual relationship than with her lesbian one, but because Renault was using Leo-as-boy and Leo-as-woman that way earlier.)I also interpreted the scene leading up to Leo and Joe having sex in a way that neither of the afterwords confirmed. My strong impression was that Leo, whom we know has always sort of led men on but then rejected them in order to avoid actual intercourse (unlike Helen, who seems to enjoy sex with men although shes had her fill of long-term relationships with them), has done so in reaction to some unspecified trauma (perhaps simply exposure to her parents horrible relationship, perhaps some other event that is not referred to in the book). Joe is finally a man she can trust. After she decides to have sex with him, she undergoes an intense struggle which I read as being Leos self-defense mechanisms vs. Leos decision that the self-defense mechanisms are no longer helpful, with Joe as the ally of the latter.This reading means that I dont think that Leo leaving Helen for Joe is primarily about Leo realizing that men are more sexually fulfilling for her than women (as Faderman suggests in her afterword). Instead, I think its Leos initial reaction to realizing that one of the premises shes built her life on (sex with men is something she cannot do; Helen is safe) suddenly no longer fully applies. Its not that she has to choose between Helen and Joe, but that she has to rethink whether living with Helen is exactly right for her. The reader knows that of course it is, but its possible that Leo wont give herself enough processing time to come to this conclusion. (hide spoiler)]

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