No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts

Sometimes you read a book that quietly sneaks up on you, becoming more engrossing and more moving as you turn the pages.  I wasn’t initially sure about Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming To Save Us, but I came to really enjoy being in the company of these flawed, authentic characters.  This is a novel filled with people who are stuck and people who are yearning, and I became totally invested in their lives.  The book jacket and pre-publication buzz may have led you to believe that this is a contemporary African American version of The Great Gatsby, but I took this novel for what it was:  a compelling family saga set in an economically depressed North Carolina town.

51u0JxuMEWL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Pinewood has seen better days – the furniture factories are almost all shuttered and even the town’s beloved greasy diner that’s been there since the 1950’s is about to close for good.  JJ (now Jay) Ferguson, former foster child,  has come back to Pinewood with money, and has built a showcase home on the hill high above town.  It’s obvious to anyone who knows him that he’s returned to win the heart of his high-school love, Ava.  Ava, meanwhile, has a good job at the bank but a sham of a marriage, and has been desperately trying to conceive a child unsuccessfully for years.  Her mother, Sylvia, is the heart of the novel.  She’s contemplating aging, secretly conversing regularly with a young convict named Marcus, and has never moved through the grief of losing her son, Devon, years ago in an accident.

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Stephanie Powell Watts

Watts knows how to write realistic dialogue and knows how to portray flawed characters sympathetically.  She’s a beautiful writer, mixing contemporary feeling conversations with astute observations about life.

Some passages I liked:

“These days when she got a glimpse of a beautiful man, she sized him up like a jeweler. Good cut, good sparkle, nice setting, but not something she herself could afford.”

“She wanted to tell Lana that for years she’d heard whispers that sounded like her son.  She almost confessed that when she found herself alone she spoke into the air until it vibrated with her voice and waited for her son’s voice to echo back.  She wanted to say that in waiting for her son she had almost surely failed her daughter who clearly need her, who probably knew better than to ask for her attention.  She wanted to tell Lana everything that would identify her as total-lost like a wrecked car and the county people could certify her gone in the ways that they do and finally, finally she could experience the peace, the calm of the diagnosis.  Everybody has a disease.”

“But soon and in clearer moments she knew she had made her own choice not to lose him or at least not to lose all of her memories of him.  She wanted the past where they lived and struggled and loved each other.  A past that couldn’t and shouldn’t be erased.  The possibility of the past, if it is a good one, or even if it has good moments, is that it can be alive, if you let it.  All of it alive, not just the terror, but the beauty too.  And the young encompassing and smothering love she’d felt for her lovely man – all that alive too. Otherwise all those years, her years, her life had not meant a thing.” 

There are no easy answers for the inhabitants of Pinewood, no outside saviors, no miracle solutions.  There is only going through, straight through the hard stuff of life – aging, infertility, depression, regrets.  And yet I wasn’t weighed down by this book. I continued to reach for it and looked forward to visiting these characters.  Perhaps the only salvation to be found is in the determined survival of Sylvia, Ava, and the rest of the characters.  Stephanie Powell Watts has written a moving story with a glimmer of hope, and I most definitely recommend it for fans of family sagas.

 

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Aubrey wondered if they were the only ones who felt that they didn’t know their mothers.  Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.

You know that bookish phrase you see frequently in reviews – “I wanted to like this more than I did?”  Like most cliches, there’s a reason you see it a lot: it describes a real feeling. The Mothers by Brit Bennett was one of 2016’s most highly lauded and promoted novels, and many of the book bloggers I follow had high praise for it.  To top it off, it has one of the most appealing covers of any hardcover in recent memory.  The fact that a debut novel by an African American woman had so much buzz around it is refreshing and hopefully a sign that the publishing industry is changing.  (I hope?)

28815371The Mothers is what I call a family saga.  The main plot deals with romantic relationships and a long-standing friendship, but the weight of family drama is ever present and influences the actions of the main characters throughout.  Nadia is a seventeen year-old living with her father after her mother’s suicide.  She and her father don’t know how to communicate with one another after such a horrific tragedy.  As she moves numbly throughout her days, making some poor choices, she ends up secretly dating Luke, a preacher’s son and an “older man” at 21.  Nadia also befriends an introverted newcomer to her school, Aubrey, who harbors her own painful family past.  Nadia and Luke’s relationship turns physical, and she becomes pregnant.  What Nadia and Luke decide to do that one summer has repercussions throughout the rest of their lives.

Providing an interesting structure throughout the book is a Greek chorus-style group of women who are the elder lay leaders of the Upper Room church that Nadia’s father attends, and where Luke’s father serves as preacher. These are women who serve on the committees, bring casseroles to the bereaved, and pray collectively for people of the church.

We don’t think of ourselves as “prayer warriors.”  A man must have come up with that term – men think anything difficult is war.  But prayer is more delicate than battle, especially intercessory prayer.  More than just a notion, taking up the burdens of someone else, often someone you don’t even know.  You close your eyes and listen to a request.  Then you have to slip inside their body.  You are Tracy Robinson, burning for whiskey.  You are Cindy Harris’s husband, searching your wife’s phone.  You are Earl Vernon, washing dirty knots out of your strung-out daughter’s hair.  

If you don’t become them, even for a second, a prayer is nothing but words.

I liked the collective voice of these women, which sometimes separated into a single person and then came back together.  I cared about Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke, and was invested in seeing how their lives played out.  But choices were made that really frustrated me.  And I wondered about the likelihood of some of those choices as well.  Things didn’t ring true at times.  I kept thinking, these people are in their late 20’s now.  Shouldn’t they be moving on a little bit, expanding their social circle?  Are they doomed to keep repeating patterns?  Sometimes it felt a bit like a soap opera, a bit overwrought.  I’m being deliberately vague because I don’t want to spoil anything.

That said, Bennett is a lovely writer.  I marked passages that were simply beautiful to read, like this:

Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss.  You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.

Or this one:

…magic you wanted was a miracle, magic you didn’t want was a haunting.

The strongest, most nuanced parts of the novel for me were Nadia’s and Aubrey’s fraught relationships with their families.  Nadia’s strained relationship with her father was particularly moving to me.  I felt how much they loved one another, but they just couldn’t find a way to communicate their love.  The sections detailing with Aubrey’s painful past and how she tried to find a way to live and love afterwards were beautifully written as well.

I liked this lyrical, haunting debut novel and would most definitely read something else by Brit Bennett.  She is certainly an author to watch, and I am so glad she’s getting media attention.  This would make a good book for a book club – lots of things to discuss, both in plot and in structure.  This was a case where my own high expectations for the book weren’t quite met, which is not the author’s fault.  If you like a book about modern, complicated families and relationships, secrets and regrets, you should give The Mothers a try.