Minus One: A Twelve Step Journey – Review by Cindy Zelman

It’s not often that I continue reading a book when, at first, I don’t like the lead character. For quite a few pages, this was the case with protagonist, Terry Manescu, in Bridget Bufford’s novel, Minus One: A Twelve-Step Journey. My dislike was due to her attitude: I found the twenty-something Terry to be grating, self-absorbed, and annoyingly angry.  Normally, such derisive feelings toward a protagonist spell disaster in terms of continuing to read a book, but something kept me moving forward, and that was simply the author’s superb writing.

Not far into the book, Bufford managed to deftly convert me into a Terry-loving cheerleader. The author transformed Terry into a multi-dimensional, open, and sympathetic character in a powerful and pivotal scene involving sex and pain and mental anguish.  I was stunned and breathless throughout the violently sexual episode between Terry and Pat, a woman she meets at a diner and with whom she has a one night stand. The scene turns out to be Terry’s low point, and from there, she works her way up to sobriety and emotional health.  She’s still a hot head at times, but now she has self-awareness – and that’s the key. Now I, as reader, like her and root for her.

Bufford has a way of teaching us about the 12-Steps that is fascinating, beginning with some laconic and often humorous quotes overheard at AA meetings. One of my favorites: “Getting lost in my head is like talking to an asshole in a bad neighborhood.” Bufford also is expert at having characters dialogue in meaningful ways about the Twelve Steps and what they mean and how to use them in one’s life.  Terry’s attitude is one of both resistance and embrace.

Just for the ability to engage us in such a topic that could have been deadly boring, I designate Bufford a word-wielding, character-building, story-telling magician. Bufford infuses humor and self-deprecation in throughout the book, which helps to lighten a very serious story of overcoming alcohol abuse.  I learned a lot about the 12-Step Program, and I found it applicable to my life, too, even though I’m not in recovery from drugs or alcohol. Perhaps we are all in recovery from something.

For example, I found myself making amends this week to someone I felt I had wronged months ago, and I don’t believe I would have done this – the act itself or the labeling of it as “amends” – if not for Bufford’s book. It’s a powerful story and a powerful author who can actually affect my behavior.

I need to mention that Bufford writes fabulous sex scenes between women. Her scenes are natural, smooth, emotional, suspenseful,  and passionate. Yet, she avoids any blushing moments and doesn’t need to use any “dirty” words. As a lesbian and a writer, too, I admire what she does with her sex scenes. The ones I write are sometimes embarrassing in their rawness, often sadly humorous, and full of bad words and bad sex. I see Bufford’s work as a lesson in how to write such scenes with perfect pacing, tone, mood, and emotion.

Here is a short excerpt:  “Her hands on my shoulders betray a fine tremor. I grip her hips,lean my forehead against her, knead the muscles of her hamstrings, her calves, pull every part of her close…”

Bufford’s novel reads like the finest creative nonfiction memoir, and for saying that, I suspect the author would like to clobber me over the head, so I will acknowledge this book as a work of fiction.For anyone interested in alcoholism, in the way gay women interact with one another, or just in a very human story of triumph over adversity, this is a great read by a very talented author. I look forward to reading her second book, Cemetery Bird.


  1. Great review, Cindy. It makes me want to read a book I normally would not be drawn to. That’s a sign of a good reviewer and a good author!

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