Monday, January 09, 2012

Growing Up '80s

I was drawn to Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones, by the first line: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist."  Well, now, there's something you don't see every day--I was hooked.

It goes on to describe his meeting with the narrator's mother, ten years into his first marriage.  Good choice; at this point, how this bigamy came to pass is what's keeping me interested.  How do Gwen and James meet, fall in love, and end up married?  By the time this background story is told, the narrator's voice has you, and you're on board for the rest.

Dana Yarboro (she doesn't have his name) knows she's the secret daughter.  She sees her father once a week, shares her  mother's obsession with his other family, and has to give up opportunities again and again to protect his secret.  Her uncle Raleigh is the only person in her father's life who knows his secret, and he's at least half in love with Gwen himself.  Dana's loneliness bearing this long secret, her relationship with her mother, who walks the line between doing her best and obsessed, and her attempts to figure out where she fits in the world when she's not even sure where she fits in her family comprise the structure of the story, although a lot of it is just about growing up Black in lower-middle class Atlanta in the early '80s. 

(I have to say here, I loved the early '80s stuff.  It's a period that you don't see in fiction much without a lot of ironic layers and distant social observation.  If only as the story of a Black teenager in Atlanta, this was really good.  It felt very personal and familiar--there was no feeling of distance from the time, either intentionally or unintentionally by the author.)

But then--oh, then--halfway through the book, the point of view shifts, and we learn of another mother's courtship with James Witherspoon, and another daughter's life with her mother, her father, her friends and neighbors, her place in the world.  Chaurisse is the legitimate daughter, the acknowledged on, the one whose perfect life Dana is protecting.  It's not all that perfect--her parents were married very young due to a pregnancy that ended with stillbirth.  Chaurisse is not beautiful or brilliant, doesn't have close friends, but has a happy, solid family life.  She doesn't know or even suspect her father's secret.

I won't spoil the events in the book, but for the most part, the events aren't what matters.  This book is all about relationships, and about trying to figure out what to do with the cards you're dealt, how to navigate a world you can't control, and how to make the best of a tough situation.  In that respect--in portraying these two young women and their strengths and vulnerabilities, and above all confusion--Silver Sparrow really shines.

In fact, I think the book's biggest flaw is that it is a bit too casual with the plot.  The ending is rushed, and a lot of emotional fallout is left of the page, which is kind of unsatisfying.  Because the decisions of adults--especially men--are almost always enigmatic, a lot of situations the girls face feel just a little sudden and contrived.  It's not entirely a failure, but it pulled me out of the story more than I would have liked.

I think my favorite element of the story, though, is the way we get to see each character through two sets of eyes.  Dana's mother--glamorous, self-sufficient, desperate--and Chaurisse's--comfortable, maternal, emotional--are both observed by each daughter, through the lenses of love, fear, innocence, and too much knowledge.  Whether the chain of events fits together at every link, Silver Sparrow is a perceptive character study that kept me reading.

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