Imagine if Shakespeare had lived a few centuries later. There would be no fair Verona, no feuding families, and no epic sword fights (unfortunately). Two warring families might not crush the hopes of young lovers the way they did for Romeo and Juliet, but in 1980s Manhattan, class, race, and poverty serve the same narrative purpose. Jardine Libaire’s tale of star-crossed lovers who fall for each other despite hailing from opposing groups is the same narrative we’ve seen time and time again since the Bard’s famous rendering. He certainly wasn’t the first to tell such a story, and Libaire’s White Fur is just one of many in that tradition.
However, this particular reimagining digs its nails deep into the conventions of typical love story narratives, tearing away at any hint of superficiality. Elise and Jamie’s individual narratives do not bind together seamlessly like those of other lovers; it’s stitched together precariously like the neck of Frankenstein’s monster, and the reader is often left to wonder how long their passion can sustain that bond.
Libaire explores and maintains the initial friction and passion of Elise and Jamie’s relationship, and, through some magical sleight of hand, effortlessly shapes the edges of their clashing lives into a double helix strand connected by a bond that only Elise has the foresight to recognize…
In the beginning, Elise Perez and Jamie Hyde would not have spoken two words to each other had Elise’s curiosity and rage against Jamie’s roommate, Matt, gotten the best of her. They are neighbors in a worn down section of New Haven, Connecticut, where Jamie is a junior at Yale, and Elise has just recently drifted away from the Manhattan projects in which she grew up. Jamie is the heir to an obscene amount of family money and is expected to work at the family’s firm upon graduation. He is rich, white, polite, “liberal,” and all-in-all, everything someone like him is supposed to be. Except, that is, for his penchant for disassociation and for poking at the nagging piece of glass in his brain that reminds him he’s simply floating through his life. He is not tangible, or legible, or capable of meaningful human contact.
Elise, on the other hand, is from a different world entirely:
“She didn’t leave home last summer with a plan. Twenty years old, she never finished high school, she was half-white and half-Puerto Rican, childless, employed at the time, not lost and not found, not incarcerated, not beautiful and not ugly and not ordinary. She doesn’t check any box; her face has Boricua contours and her skin is alabaster.”
—excerpt from Jardine Libaire’s White Fur
Libaire has a distinct talent for stringing together the disjointed odds and ends of her characters to forge a pointed image into the reader’s mind that cannot be dislodged and that stays with the reader long after he or she has walked away from the book. Her words build images that come from a deep, instinctive knowledge of time, place, class, and love wrangled. Very few writers can do both of their characters equal justice. And though Elise was the character with whom I instantly connected, both she and Jamie are as chiseled and nuanced as a Michelangelo.
Like most star-crossed lovers, Elise and Jamie have an instant, largely physical attraction. Jamie is blind to any hint of anything deeper than that, and he is often embarrassed by Elise’s unabashed street speech and mannerisms. Elise is besotted with him in a way that is cringe inducing. It’s obsessive and all-consuming. But she sees something there that no one else can. And love, that elusive, fleeting thing that Jamie cannot fathom, blooms, becoming a slow revelation.
The inherent precariousness of their love story—weighed down by their class distinctions—makes the reader wonder if, or when, these lovers will end in tragedy. Romeo and Juliet had their poison and a dagger. Elise and Jamie have a rifle in a Wyoming motel room. The events leading up to that ultimate decision comes after a period of tension, followed by one of intense joy. After Elise’s calculated pursuit of Jamie, and his hesitant reciprocation, the two end up in a high end flat in Manhattan for the summer. Jamie works at Sotheby’s during the day, and Elise wanders. The night is for love and food and the occasional club. Their world expands to include the wayward vagabonds and everyday people of New York City; it constricts at any hint of contact with the world that Jamie comes from.
Elise—with her box braids and razor sharp tongue—is not the Hydes’ idea of a suitable match for their son. What they think is a phase or Jamie’s idea of a charity case, quickly turns into the makings of a publicity nightmare for this upstanding, old-New York family. Jamie’s father has the typical condescending rich man attitudes toward the poor, and his son is deeply disgusted by his ignorance.
Jamie renounces his fortune, and the pair live in a blissful bubble where the nights always come back to love. Their wandering is an opportunity for Libaire to explore the chasms and sharp edges of 1980s Manhattan—a world in which working people still exist, where the projects are still in the clutches of the War on Drugs, and where a meager life could still be a happy one. The eight months of their courtship and increasingly insular life lead to one night in which Jamie’s recursive, exploratory mind nearly kills him. Elise alone has to figure out what to do, and the fallout of this accident almost ends everything.
Libaire’s novel is one that fits into the stagnant heat of summer and the frigid depths of winter equally. The prose is sharp, poetic, and strung together from the fragments of two disparate lives; with just a few brushstrokes, Libaire creates a master work of Elise and Jamie’s love story in White Fur. It is a story you will not forget.