Silver Sparrow

One husband – two wives – a daughter with each: one wife and daughter live in ignorant bliss; the others spy on their counterparts as they live their parallel lives in Atlanta -unknown and in secret.  In Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones creates a story with quiet drama and private misery.

James Witherspoon is a black man with a stutter  -

“…a bit on the short side and wore glasses thick as a slice of Wonder bread…”

No handsome lothario – but he did the right thing and married Laverne when he got her pregnant at 14, and then falls in love with Gwen and marries her when she becomes pregnant.

Jones uses the first half of her book to focus on Gwen and Dana’s secret life with James. Gwen has always known James is married; she’s made her peace with being the other woman, but knows how to manipulate his guilt into gifts for their daughter, Dana. Although she was working at a retail store when she met James, who came in to buy an anniversary present for his wife, she successfully completes her practical nursing degree to supplement James’s meager support.

Gwen and Dana regularly embark on “surveil” trips – to check out the other wife and daughter, their house with the attached beauty salon, what they are wearing, how they live – blackmailing James with the information, unsuccessfully trying to match their lives.  Jones makes their place as second-best pathetic yet resilient, and the masquerade could continue indefinitely – with Dana not allowed to attend the same school or work at the same summer job as her sister Chaurisse; James is determined to keep his lives separate.  If Dana would be satisfied with the deception, she could have graduated from Mt. Holyoke in South Hadley, and someday Gwen might have turned up dressed in widow’s black at his funeral.  But Dana is not happy with her secret standing, and her longing to be known as her father’s daughter is the quiet time bomb that you expect to explode.

In the second half of the book, Jones backtracks to tell the other side – Laverne pregnant at 14, losing the baby, forced to drop out of high school, giving birth to a daughter a few months after Dana is born.  After the ground work is laid, Jones begins her campaign to cross the lives of the two daughters.  They meet as teenagers, but only Dana knows it is her sister, Chaurisse, that she has been stalking.  As their strange friendship develops, Chaurisse unknowingly reveals pieces of her private life.  In a pivotal scene, the two girls have a flat tire on their way to a party.  Chaurisse calls her father for help; Dana, in a panic not to be discovered, calls her mother for a ride.  James arrives with his friend Raleigh, at the same time as Gwen, but only Chaurisse is unaware of the relationships.

At times, you don’t know who is more to blame – James for his deceit or Gwen for her complicity.   But the novel is about his daughters: one secure in her family life, not as bright or pretty as her illegitimate sister, but blissfully ignorant of her father’s deception; the other, a silver girl – beautiful and smart – who sees her father only once a week for dinner, cringing with a desperate yearning under the veil of being second-best that ruins her life.

The ending is unforgiving but realistic.  What a great book for a group discussion.  So many possibilities to think about:

What if Dana had kept away from Chaurisse?  Was her longing for a legitimate father – or was it a sister she craved?   What if Raleigh had married Gwen?  Was Laverne really that clueless or did she choose not to know?  Would you have ended the story differently?

Set in Atlanta, Silver Sparrow has the authenticity that is lacking in The Help.  No happy endings here, but a thoughtful and compelling story – that could be true.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

Summers at the family beach house in Maine with all the brothers, sisters, in-laws, and cousins lovingly connecting – singing Irish songs, racing into the surf –  sounds ideal, but, of course, family gatherings always have an undercurrent.  In J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine, it’s all about the dysfunctional relationships among the women and the beachfront property won in a war-time bet.

In the first half of the book, Sullivan prepares the foundation for the story, introducing each of the women in her own voice with her own chapter, revealing loyalties and jealousies, fears and traumas – they look fine but are all a mess under the surface.  Mother Alice is a hard woman to like; in old age, she’s retained her beauty as well as her prejudices about anything and anyone who does not meet her conservative standards.  Her daughters, Clare and Kathleen, have escaped her influence but try to retain a respectful silence while seething in private about her.  Anne Marie, the daughter-in-law, always trying to please, has Alice’s favor on the surface, but seems ready to crack under the pressure of being perfect.

Sullivan uses religion and Irish family ties as a caustic undercurrent.  Everyone prays, but the church offers little comfort and a lot of Catholic guilt.  Alice, trying to make up for an old sin against her sister, donates the Maine property to the church – without telling her children.  Her daughter, Clare,  gets rich selling First Communion medallions and other religious artefacts on the internet.  Daughter-in-law Anne Marie prays more than the others – when not obsessed with redecorating her dollhouse.  Kathleen, the black sheep – divorced and “living in sin” in California, has a worm farm and battles the old family curse of alcoholism. Her daughter, Maggie, is the frontrunner of the next generation: Maggie is pregnant and unmarried, Cousin Fiona is gay  – but no one is telling Grandma Alice.

Sullivan cleverly teases with secrets, forcing the reader to slog through chapters of angst, personal grudges, and family drama, hoping to uncover why Alice blames herself for her sister’s death in a fire, what horror happened at the patriarch’s funeral, when Maggie will tell about her pregnancy, how Alice will finally implode…    She reveals the family secrets slowly in flashbacks and finally offers reasons for the bitterness and despair.  Eventually, the women come together at the beach in Maine – Alice, Kathleen, Anne Marie, and Maggie – resolving the issues they have with each other and with themselves.

Like any Irish saga, this one is full of anxiety, despair, and drinking – but Sullivan offers her own brand of redemption and adds some humor.  Alice’s decision to leave the million dollar beach property to the church seems in character, and perhaps every family’s nightmare – that grandma will die and leave it all to the church – but, in the end, the decision saves everyone.   The story was too long, with too much anxiety for me, but the characters reflect women’s universal fear – will I become my mother?