When I opened Regina Porter's book and found at its beginning a list of 33 characters, I was immediately tempted to close it up again and reach for another book in my reading queue. But the book had been highly recommended as my "kind of book", one that I was sure to enjoy, so I persisted and immersed myself in this generational story.
All of those 33 characters turned out to be members of or connected to two families, one black and one white, and the story is a portrait of race relations in America beginning in the Jim Crow era of the 1950s and ending during Barack Obama's presidency in 2010. Moreover, as well as traveling through time, the characters travel around the world in the space of these decades. Buckner County, Georgia is central to the story, but various characters spend time in New Hampshire, New York City, Los Angeles, Vietnam, Brittany, Berlin, and the list goes on. Over time, the families become blended and interconnected through love/sex/marriage until the differences hardly seem to matter anymore. If they ever did.
The story hops and skips through time, never taking a linear course. There is no beginning, middle, and end as such. Everything blends together - like the families - over time. The story washes over the reader and finally, when one is able to view it as a whole, patterns emerge. Because of the structure of the story, it is almost impossible to summarize the plot. (Is there even a "plot"?) These characters drift together and apart through the North and South, suffering tragedies and the occasional triumph but mostly just existing in what we might call "normal lives". Porter's tale is essentially one of ordinary people who are looking to make a meaningful connection in life, one that will help them feel less alone.
I found that the proliferation of characters was never really a problem for me. If I ever began to feel confused about a particular relationship, I simply kept reading and soon I was able to make the connection I needed. Porter's writing made that easy. Her prose borders on the poetic at times. It is occasionally leavened with humor but is always filled with empathy and caring for her very human characters.
All in all, I found this another remarkable debut novel. Porter has written an intimate family portrait that could be about any of our families. It was an engrossing read. I'm glad I persisted.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars