This book has languished on my TBR list for quite a while and I'm not sure why I haven't read it sooner. Now that I have read it, I regret that I didn't read it the minute that I got it. It is a terrific book, the first novel by this author, but one would never guess that for it is an assured and self-confident bit of writing. Sexton gives full-bodied life to her characters without either sentimentalizing them or making them into oddities. These are ordinary people whose struggles we can identify with.
The author is a resident of New Orleans and that is where her novel is set. Part of the appeal of the narrative is that she deeply understands her city and its culture and she delivers it to us with clear-eyed descriptions which allow us to see it with all of its richness as well as its deeply ingrained flaws.
She tells her story through the lives of three generations of a New Orleans family, a quintessential New Orleans family of Creole and African-American heritage. She begins in 1944 with the love story of Evelyn and Renard. Evelyn is the daughter of a wealthy and prominent family. Her mother is Creole and her father is an African-American who worked his way out of poverty to become a respected doctor. Renard is from a poor Twelfth Ward neighborhood who works menial jobs but aspires to something better. He wants to be a doctor but the paths open to him to achieve that goal are straight, narrow, and full of obstacles. Their courtship is passionate, but it reveals all the class-based impediments to their achieving a life together. In the end, the only way that Renard can see to further his education and perhaps become worthy in the eyes of Evelyn's father is to join the military, so he volunteers for the army. Before he is shipped out to Europe, he and Evelyn make love for the first time. Of course, she becomes pregnant but she doesn't know that until Renard is in France and she chooses not to tell him. She also doesn't tell her family until her condition becomes obvious.
Their story has a happy ending in that Renard returns from Europe and is delighted with the idea of fatherhood and of being a husband to Evelyn. Their marriage is made to last, but forty years later, their daughter, Jackie is not so lucky. In 1980s New Orleans, Jackie is in love with Terry, but Terry is a crack addict who struggles to overcome his addiction. He is a pharmacist but his addictions rob him of his profession and his family of their middle-class life. Ultimately, Jackie is a struggling single mother trying to make a decent life for her son T.C.
And it is through T.C. in 2010 that we see New Orleans and this family at their lowest ebb. It is post-Katrina New Orleans after the federal government had allowed that city to drown in the storm. The odor of mold is still in the air and the con artists and grifters have moved in to take advantage of the vulnerable. T.C., who never really knew his father, struggles with many of the same issues as that father, chief among them a police force and justice system that targets black men. Although he tries to keep himself straight and to work toward a better life, it seems to be a losing battle.
Thus we see the decline of this family from a position of wealth and prominence in the mid-20th century to just barely making it in the 21st century. Throughout the period, the fortunes of the family and, it could be argued, of the city have been hostage to racial and class prejudice. As one who loves that city, I find this reprehensible, particularly what I consider the abandonment of the city by the federal government during its time of greatest need. It's something that I can never forget or forgive. But Sexton does not dwell on this; it is simply there in the background of her story. And her bottom line is that both the family and the city endure. She highlights their courage in never giving up. With all its setbacks, it is a hopeful story and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton has succeeded brilliantly in telling it.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars