Jacqueline Woodson's new book is a small treasure. Short enough that it could be called a novella rather than a novel, it still manages to address, as NPR noted in its review, "issues of class, education, ambition, racial prejudice, sexual desire and orientation, identity, mother-daughter relationships, parenthood and loss." In spare language with no wasted words, she tells a story of a family, of mothers and daughters, that will resonate with anyone who has ever lived in a family.
This is actually a story of two families from two very different backgrounds and social classes. There is Iris, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a middle class, upwardly striving African-American family in Brooklyn and Aubrey, son of a single mother barely managing to support herself and her teenage son with a combination of part-time jobs and the assistance of food stamps. The two teenagers come together compelled by their irrepressible sexual desire. Even though they try to be careful and take precautions, the time inevitably comes when their desire overwhelms their caution and the result is an unwanted pregnancy.
Iris's family is Catholic, but she knows that if she reveals the pregnancy they will press her to have an abortion. In spite of the fact that the pregnancy was not wanted, she finds that she does now want the baby. On the cusp of planning for her coming out party at sixteen, the parents learn of her condition, but it is too late to do anything about it. In the fullness of time, she delivers a daughter who she names Melody.
The novel begins as we meet Melody getting ready for her own coming of age party in 2001 at her grandparents' house. She will be wearing the custom-made dress that was sewn for her mother sixteen years before, the dress that her mother never got to wear.
Moving backward and forward in time, Woodson tells the story of these people, and through their relationships, decisions, and experiences, she gives us a portrait of the times in which they have lived. We see the very real effects and long-term consequences of children being forced to make life-altering decisions before they are prepared. And we see the strength that exists in families to support each other and make individuals stronger and help them survive difficult times.
This is a lovely and poignant story of human weakness and strength which left me with a feeling of hope. Not at all a bad recommendation for a book.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars