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.
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.
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.