This well-written and thought-provoking story, set in Atlanta in the 1980’s, is about a bigamist, James Witherspoon, and his two families. It is told from the perspectives of the only child from each of the two marriages. Both of them are daughters – Dana and Chaurisse – and they are only four months apart in age.
Dana and her mom Gwen, who came along after James was already married the first time, live in the figurative shadow of James’ “main” family, Laverne and Chaurisse. James comes to see Dana and Gwen once a week for dinner, but only has a little so he can eat again once he gets “home.” Gwen and Dana constantly contend with jealousy and the feeling of being “second.” Dana says:
“[Laverne] found him first and my mother has always respected the other woman’s squatter’s rights. But was my mother his wife, too?”
And what about Chaurisse? Dana says,
“In my mind, Chaurisse is his real daughter. With wives, it only matters who gets there first. With daughters, the situation is a bit more complicated.”
Part One tells Dana’s story, and Part Two is narrated by Chaurisse. Dana and Gwen, the second set, know about Laverne and Chaurisse, but Laverne and Chaurisse are “under the impression that [theirs] was an ordinary life.” And it was just an ordinary cup of coffee that changed it all. Dana tells how her parents met and went for coffee together:
“And this is how it started. Just with coffee and the exchange of their long stories. Love can be incremental. Predicaments, too. Coffee can start a life just as it can start a day. This was the meeting of two people who were destined to love from before they were born, from before they made choices that would complicate their lives. This love just rolled toward my mother as though she were standing at the bottom of a steep hill. Mother had no hand in this, only heart.”
The only character of note besides the two families is Raleigh, the brother-for-all-intensive-purposes of James, who also plays a role in both families along with James for all the years of the two relationships. Both the girls know and love him as “Uncle Raleigh,” and the reader can’t help but feel the same affection for him.
James liked to say to Dana, “you are the secret,” thinking it might make her feel special, but in actuality, it makes her feel bad. As we listen to the girls’ stories, we see Dana acting out more and more, until finally the situation blows up, and all the secrets come roiling out in a poison brew.
Discussion: I struggled with my reaction to Dana (and I took this as a sign of good writing on the part of the author). I felt sorry for her, then I resented her, then I came back full circle at the end. It was hard for all of them, this shared love. And yet, within large families, love is by no means exclusive. It’s a most interesting situation to ponder.
Evaluation: This is a very good story that stays with you long after you finish, as you try to grapple with all the issues it raises about love and families. Marketed as adult fiction, it can also be considered a young adult book, but be aware that for younger readers, the two girls are into premarital sex. With all the issues to think about, it’s a great choice for a book club.
Published by Algonquin Books, 2011