Just Wide Enough for Two
by Kacey M. Martin
Genre: Historical Fiction / LGBTQ
Print Length: 328 pages
Reviewed by Andrea Marks-Joseph
A reimagining of Emily Dickinson’s life as a sweet love letter to deep sapphic love in an era when queer romance felt rare and impossible
Just Wide Enough for Two is a love story between childhood best friends Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert, spanning years of complicated life changes where their passionate connection remains constant. Readers need no previous knowledge of Dickinson’s poetry or life story before diving into this wonderfully written, vibrant tale of a community surrounding two young girls growing up and confronting love.
Emily Dickinson is wild and offbeat, more comfortable running around outdoors and speaking out of turn than she is in any stereotypical “ladylike” capacity. Her adoring family supports her whims and encourages her hobbies, with the hope that someday she will decide on her own to marry and settle down.
Her childhood best friend Susan Gilbert is more compliant and realistic about the expectations of her femininity. All too familiar with “the powerful, enrapturing feeling” of being in love with Emily, she is also more practical than Emily is. Sue knows that she should give up on their relationship for the sake of a predictable future, a life of means and stability.
Sue is living with her sister and brother-in-law, who manipulate her into working off his gambling debt and force her into a painful life of obligations and lies in exchange for shelter. This desperate work often takes her away from Emily and the sapphic love that Author Kacey M. Martin graciously writes as organic and instinctive: “hundreds of butterflies that began to spread their wings inside her chest and flutter throughout her veins as she looked into Susan’s eyes. Emily barely had time to process the new feeling when Susan kissed her.”
Between vivid descriptions of the ever-changing natural landscapes, seductive descriptions when looking at each other, and the secret-coded letters slipped between breasts before sneaking off to rendezvous, open-hearted Emily and Susan always take center stage.
Transportive in both location—we spend most of our time between the young women’s respective family houses and the lush outdoors when they go for long walks—and setting where a woman’s duty and path to achieving success is aligned with a following very particular social rule book, Just Wide Enough for Two also does a lovely job of including topics such as the abolishment of slavery that does not exclude readers of color.
The men in Just Wide Enough for Two are also written from an inclusive, feminist point of view. Despite holding significantly more influence over social situations (as is to be expected of the era) they are multi-dimensional and genuinely sympathetic to the women in their lives.
Romantically undesirable as they may be to Emily and Sue, their suitors are undeniably kind, patient, and persistent. These men are products of their rigid society, but gentle even with the frivolous Emily Dickinson who constantly ruins their carefully considered plans.
Though marriage proposals from prospective male suitors play a significant role in the plot, the novel’s investment in Emily and Sue’s wellbeing portrays these heteronormative interruptions as more inconvenient than devastating: “He was dedicated, loyal, honest, and kind. Any woman would be lucky to have him as a husband. Any woman who was not already in love with his sister, that is.”
Just Wide Enough for Two feels like a classic romantic comedy filled with grand gestures of love in a charming historical setting. There’s a powerful sense of longing and suspense while reading, as we cannot imagine how the women may achieve their happily ever after under these circumstances, but trust that they will.
Just Wide Enough for Two is a delight! A long-lasting romance with steady beats of delicious sapphic sexual tension, ensuring the reader knows from the start that these two young women are interested in romancing each other. Even readers who are unfamiliar with the story of Emily Dickinson’s life will be pulled in by the beautiful, sincere, and poetic love depicted in these pages.
This novel serves as a reminder that queer people have always existed —as children who wanted to hold hands for longer than strictly necessary, as teenagers who desired each other’s bodies, as adults who agonized over the idea that they may have to marry anyone but the truest love of their life —and that queer love is as genuine, sweet, and captivating as any heterosexual romance we’ve seen.
We read love letters that are simply yet breathtakingly written: “Dear Suzie, I could not remain cross with you for all the world’s pearls.” And get swept up in narration when the lovers reunite: “Her mind began to race as fast as her legs with images, memories, and curiosities of Susan Gilbert. Would she look the same? Would her hair still smell of lilac and bergamot? Would her skin still feel soft to the touch?”
These two women have nothing to guide them on the path of pursuing what they feel, but they follow it anyway. They face family obligations, economic hardships, community gossip, shocking betrayals, unwanted marriage proposals, and being torn apart by distance many times in their young lives. But they never waver in their adoration for the other woman, in their certainty that this is their heart’s purpose.
“Her breast is fit for pearls But I was not a ‘Diver’ Her brow is fit for thrones But I have not a crest. Her heart is fit for homeI – a Sparrow – build there Sweet of twigs and twine My perennial nest. Emily”
Queer readers will appreciate the detail and depth of the care that Martin wrote into the stories. There’s no homophobia, none of the expected miscommunication tropes, (even when they can only communicate through letters written weeks apart), and no queer shaming. Everyone who learns of Emily and Susan’s relationship accepts it as an inescapable truth and loves them the same.
The landscape is realistic—the women always kiss in secret, reluctantly accept courtship from men who they only see as friends, and hesitate to confess their true feelings to their closest confidants even in the depth of despair when they’re visibly heartbroken to be apart—but the priority in Martin’s treatment of these queer woman is always to make them feel supported, not othered.
Just Wide Enough for Twois such a pleasure to read. I didn’t want to put it down, but I also never wanted it to end. I will certainly feel good gifting it to readers of any age. Martin is an author who I can trust with queer readers’ hearts.
Though the overall mood of this novel is hopeful and honey-sweet, particularly in its cast of extended family that we grow to know and appreciate as much as the girls do, there are some content notes to be aware of: This story includes the upending of a household due to Susan’s brother-in-law’s gambling; the sudden death of a close friend from consumption, described in a way that may be triggering to readers who lost someone in the recent pandemic; and descriptions of depression and suicidal ideation in grief.
Just Wide Enough for Two will appeal to anyone who enjoys this historical period, or adores Dickinson’s poetry and life story, as well as to fans of the AppleTV+ show “Dickinson” and the romance novel Love, Rosie. It’s particularly suited to queer readers, and to anyone whose heart beats for the once-in-a-lifetime magic of a timeless romance.
Thank you for reading Andrea Marks-Joseph’s book review of Just Wide Enough for Two by Kacey M. Martin! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.