Ruth Madievsky’s All-Night Pharmacy begins in the underbelly of Los Angeles. The unnamed nineteen-year-old narrator and her chaotic sister, Debbie, frequent Salvation, a former Christian bookstore that was converted into a bar in East Hollywood. Like an LA parking lot in the haunting glow of evening, the place turns majestic at night. Its regulars are the Los Angelenos you never hear about: theater actors turned porn performers, an energy healer who stores a jade egg in her vagina to transform sexual trauma into power, fake art buyers. It’s a world of witty banter and emotional repression.
All-Night Pharmacy’s heroine and Debbie fit right in. Our narrator crawls from precarious situation to precarious situation in the shadow of cruel and otherworldly Debbie. Through the ache of the sisters’ fraught relationship, Madievsky deftly details the gaps in logic one has to leap over in order to achieve a warped sense of intimacy in a dysfunctional family. Though Debbie drags her into downing mystery pills with strangers and driving to deserted overlooks with shady men, the narrator is still flooded with a desire to curl up next to her sister at the end of the night. Like many big sisters, Debbie is equal parts ethereal and terrifying. “Spending time with my sister… was like buying acid off a guy you met on the bus,” the narrator says. “You never knew if it would end with you, euphoric, tanning topless on a fishing boat headed for Ensenada, or coming to in a gas station bathroom, the insides of your eyes feeling as though they’d been scraped out with spoons. Often, it was both.”
All-Night Pharmacy’s world feels like a Phoebe Bridgers song—spooky and sexy, stringing pop culture together with the abject, and always swelling with feeling. The novel is populated with mythological women. Debbie disappears without a trace, pushing the narrator into a complex relationship with a pseudo spiritual guide and fellow member of the Jewish diaspora, Sasha. Then there’s the unnamed narrator’s mother, who has been in and out of institutions and now rarely leaves the house. Her various mental illnesses evade diagnosis. Her mother’s mother, the narrator’s grandmother, who immigrated in her twenties from Russia, compulsively tells the story of her father’s murder at the hands of the government for teaching the Torah in his basement. She doesn’t understand her “spoiled” American daughter’s paranoia.
Under the surface of these characters’ addictions and obsessions, All-Night Pharmacy throbs with generational grief. After hearing a story about how one of Sasha’s ancestors survived the Kishinev pogrom by eating a raw, regurgitated potato, the narrator smells the potatoes on her hands, no matter how much she washes them. These encounters that collapse the space between personal and collective loss prompt the narrator to ask the question “Was belonging to yourself even possible?”
As the narrator and Sasha grow closer, the book seems to draw a connection between redemption and queerness, then quickly swerves away from it. Instead, desire operates in more complex ways in All-Night Pharmacy, blurring the lines between the erotic, the familial, and the political, with love as the center of the Venn diagram between these categories. Sasha takes the protagonist on an international journey—away from drugs and the shadow of her sister, and toward her own sense of self—only to wind up pointed directly at Debbie once more. At the end of the novel, she is given a choice: Can she untether herself from the past without self-destructing? Can she love without losing herself?
Madievsky uses dry humor, finely dialed insights, and lush, imagistic language to articulate the burdens of the past that we carry in our bodies. Her “diasporic drama queens,” as Madievsky has called her characters, represent kaleidoscopic responses to individual and collective loss. LA’s cityscape is the fractured glass upon which these divas dance, colliding and then separating on its precarious surface.
Publisher: Catapult Page count: 304 Price: $27 Key Quote: “Debbie wore her body like she owned it; for me, it was the other way around. She was only five foot two, but that made her more powerful; you could fall asleep spooning her and wake up with a screwdriver pressed to your throat.” Shelve next to: Jean Chen Ho, Raven Leilani, Sharlene Teo Unscientifically calculated reading time: 4 pedicures