Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones, Algonquin Books, 2011, 340 pp
This novel was a reading group pick suggested by me. We discussed it until the restaurant where we meet closed and they kicked us out. It is so good and will be on my Top 25 Books Read in 2018.
Set in Atlanta, GA, it is a story of two half-sisters whose father is a bigamist. James Witherspoon married Laverne when he accidentally made her pregnant. She was 14, James was 16. The baby died a few hours after a tough delivery. Ten years later James and Laverne had a daughter named Chaurisse who grew up in a house with her parents.
Unbeknownst to his wife and daughter, James had met and impregnated Gwendolyn, who had a daughter named Dana. She maneuvered James into also marrying her, across the state line in Alabama. Gwen did not want her child to be illegitimate.
Now James was a bigamist and while Gwen and Dana knew about his other family, Laverne and Chaurisse had no idea a second household existed. James came once a week for dinner with Gwen and Dana. As the girls grew up, James became a successful owner of a limousine service and could afford financial aide to Gwen, with whom he continued a sexual relationship.
All of these people were Black. Gwen worked as a nurse, in fact she worked as hard as any single mom has to work. For relaxation and recreation, she and Dana would engage in "surveillance," spying on the other family, so Dana grew up aware of her father's other life and of her half-sister. She was forbidden to have any contact with Chaurisse, but that restriction broke down when the two girls were in high school and met one day.
Another twist to this tale is that Laverne and Chaurisse were plain, chunky females while Gwen and Dana were beautiful, slim and blessed with long flowing hair. Hair is a large issue. In the 1980s Black women had exciting options when it came to hair: chemical straightening, extensions, hair pieces, etc. The natural afro of the 60s and 70s was out. Laverne ran a beauty shop in her home and Chaurisse, as her wash and set assistant, learned all the tricks, while Gwen and Dana enjoyed their naturally straight, soft and flowing hair.
The whole story with its many twists, secrets, and longings is just about perfectly told as far as I am concerned. The reading group concurred, every member. There is much humor, thank goodness, and wonderful period detail as well as 1980s history, effortlessly well written sex scenes among both adults and teens, but enough tragedy to break the hardest heart.
It was amazing how the author made James a sympathetic character. All four of those females hungered for his love but in the end, after what amounts to a big catastrophe, one wife and daughter win, while the other two lose.
Just read it!
(Silver Sparrow is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)