... despite its subject, The Tree and the Vine is lively, funny ... It doesn’t surprise me that the novel, though by no means sexually explicit, was initially considered too shocking to publish...Whereas Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, appearing under a pseudonym in 1952, notoriously provided a lesbian romance with a happy, or at least hopeful, ending, The Tree and the Vine accomplishes something bolder: It normalizes its characters’ unhappinesses, showing them to be just as complicated as anyone else’s ... Bea’s tendency to pathologize Erica’s sexuality — as a 'wrongness' she sometimes sees as the result of a troubled upbringing — only highlights de Jong’s refusal to do so, and her recognition that, as with the image of tree and vine, a certain self-defeating twistedness is a natural part of the human condition. And here, when a character is endangered by her love of women, you know it isn’t the author who wants to punish her.
Silence lies at the heart of Dola de Jong’s The Tree and the Vine...a short novel of unrequited desire set in Amsterdam on the eve of World War II....a sharp and erotic domestic drama, sometimes comic yet darkened by the looming Nazi occupation ... Erica’s restlessness and Bea’s obstinacy destroy any chance of fleeing together, but their increasingly high-stakes standoff makes for some slashing arguments. ... [a] midcentury queer classic...
... hums with obsessive energy ... Told through Bea’s perspective, the story relies on oblique prompts that encourage its audience to read between the lines. From its first moment, it focuses in on the women’s unremarkable relationship, in which innocuous moments illicit tumultuous emotional responses from both women. Its sparse and anxious prose, while a product of its time, imbues the book with the flavor of Bea’s dizzying emotional state. The result is a chamber drama with the atmosphere of a murder mystery ... By today’s standards, The Tree and The Vine is overwrought. Coming into awareness of one’s own sexuality through a same-sex crush on a roommate is close to a cliche, yet within the novel, tension rings in every paragraph. The novel is a piece of queer history, and its subtext-laden emotional roller coaster takes on revelatory magic ... Tragic yet triumphant, the tense novel The Tree and the Vine is best read in one long, shaking breath. It is a gift to queer women’s history, and a delight akin to the letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, or the laughing photos of Frida Kahlo and Chavela Vargas.
The novel presents a fine study in unreliable narration, as it takes time to discern the desperate emotions screened behind Bea’s plain, dispassionate storytelling ... a careful and muted lament about the sorrow of restraint, and what moves the reader is not only Erica’s fate but Bea’s belated interrogation of 'the haunting question as to why I imposed certain restrictions on our relationship [that were] the legacy of the time, a legacy that has nestled into my tissue like a tumor.'
This updated translation from the Dutch by Kristen Gehrman retains what is fresh, understated and moving in the original ... The tone of The Tree and the Vine is often backward-looking and elegiac, told at a distance of years. But the immediate events of the women's lives feel frantic: Erica rushes about, Bea panics. What is most important almost always goes unsaid ... The prose can occasionally feel a bit stilted, or involve a bit more telling than showing; but in fact what is shown, often, is not actions or expressions but Bea's own deep feeling and anguish. The result is a love story on the brink of war in which the love never quite steps out in the open and the war remains off-stage. A sense of looming, momentous events pervades this slim novel ... By turns emotional and restrained, this powerful story indeed offers valuable perspective on the human experience.
It’s Bea’s inability to face, let alone name, her true sexual desires that drives this spare, elegant, and ultimately haunting novel. De Jong’s book was first published in Dutch in 1954, when it was considered radical for its choice of subject matter. Gehrman’s beautiful new translation returns the book to the spotlight where it belongs ... (The couple's treatment of each other is itself a marvel as they oscillate helplessly between kindness and cruelty.) The tension between what can be said and what must remain unsaid is pulled exquisitely taut: This is a high-wire act no one but de Jong could pull off ... There’s nothing simple about this deceptively spare novel—a jewel hidden in plain sight.