I think I mentioned this in an earlier post, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, but I have managed to snag a couple pretty sweet ARC copies now that I work at the library…and this is one of them! It totally caught my eye after seeing @irisbooklist talking about it and I was hype to get my hands on it.
“She hadn’t needed lectures or coddling; most girls didn’t. The needed choices.”
This is one of those novels that it’s kind of hard to give a summary of, but I’ll try. Although it jumps in time, to help give us context for the characters, the primary conflict is within a central NC community that is dealing with a sort of school-rezoning. Essentially, Black students from one side of town and being integrated into a primarily white high school on the other side of town. On one side, Jade is fighting to overcome a deep tragedy in the past and give her son, Gee, the very best possible life, knowing the challenges he’ll face as a young Black man in America. On the other side, Lacey Mae sees herself as defending the life she’s built for her daughters, refusing to acknowledge their half-Latina heritage. When Gee and Noelle, Lacey Mae’s oldest daughter, meet and start spending time together as part of a school production, their relationship flies in the face of their mothers’ wishes and hopes for them and sets up their turbulent and interconnected future.
WHOA. What a stunner. Like, in the sense that I am stunned after finishing this book. I am struggling to remember the last book I read with characters this…real. They were complicated and difficult and just so pure in their individual efforts and ugliness and motivations and I couldn’t get enough. I was also slightly overwhelmed by how recognizable these characters were. Like seriously, I live in the exact area that this novel takes place (the references were all very euphemistic, but I live in the Piedmont of North Carolina and let me tell you, I could see through a number of them…always kinda cool to read about your real life in fiction). Anyways, not just that, but having lived and taught here for going on 10 years, and having married into an NC family for a similar length of time, there were quite a few comments and observations about attitudes and reactions that were real not just in that they were written so authentically, but real as in I have personally lived/seen them. And it was amazing. So well done. But also, really intense to read sometimes because of it.
Getting a little more specific, just for a bit. I know that description of this novel makes it seem like the full focus is on school district changes and a battle over that and, in part, it is. That is the sort of central linchpin event that redefines many of the characters relationships with each other. However, the story is told across time in with focus on different people, to really give that one defining moment the depth and meaning it needs to make it so powerful. The book opens with the tragic event that leaves Jade and Gee with just each other. And from there we jump forward and back in time to Noelle’s (and her sisters’) adult lives (their relationships, successes and failures), Lacey Mae’s “origin story” – the husband who left her and the husband she chose for stability, and the school events that bring Noelle and Gee together. There’s a bit of a character twist that I guessed pretty early on, but that still held weight when the truth came out, because by then I was so invested in the characters and their development that the more “click into place” than “full on surprise” and felt more right anyways. Overall, fantastically paced and gorgeously brought together.
To close out my review, it’s absolutely necessary to highlight the insidious affects of racism on these characters and this story. At times more obvious and at times more subtle, Coster demonstrated with absolute skill the way nothing, from societal structure to interpersonal relationship, is free from the shadow of racism. Addressing everything from passing young love to internal identity to parenting (oh, the “parents doing the best they can” over and over was a focal and devastating theme), the nuanced legacy of racism for each and every person and community in these pages, connecting and undergirding the entire novel, is something truly special (as far as writing ability is concerned).
A few passages for you to enjoy:
“She was an ignorant woman, dangerous. Another woman’s child was laid up in the hospital, and all that she could see was the imagined threat to her own.”
“They’d be decent in some ways; they’d astonish her with how they seemed to keep up with the news, the shifting language around identity and race. […] But they’d be incensed, too, at the encroachments they saw on their world – the stars cast in movies franchises they had formerly adored, the people who had the nerve to go to marches and complain and vote in elections. They would guard everything they had, however little, as if their lives were prizes they’d rightly won that others had no right to claim. They’d never admit how willingly they’d played their parts.”
“It was too easy for people to see their interests and disinterests as pure, functions of their desires and personalities.”
“Maybe this was another way that she was white: the ease with which she could ignore calamity, focus mainly on what she wanted.”
“‘You know, they say that’s what gives life meaning. The fact that we’re all going to die.’ he said. ‘I don’t believe that at all. I don’t need death to remind me how good life it. If I had an infinite amount of life, I’d be happy to go on living. Look at all this.”