Review of “Silver Sparrow” by Tayari Jones

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.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Algonquin Books, 2011

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19 Responses to Review of “Silver Sparrow” by Tayari Jones

  1. Amanda says:

    I just finished this last night and thought it was absolutely fantastic. I’m curious why you resented Dana? One of the curious and wonderful things about this book to me is that I never resented either girl, and accepted them both while they, in some ways, thought they were in competition. Neither won my heart over the other. I felt sorry for everyone. The scene at the end with Dana and her father just broke my heart.

  2. Nymeth says:

    I really like the fact that the story is told from the point of view of the two girls. Sounds like a great story that would give me lots to think about.

  3. Oh, a book about Atlanta! Awesome. I definitely need to check this one out.

  4. zibilee says:

    It sounds as if this is a very complex story, but also very good. I like the fact that it is written from two different viewpoints and tells the tale fro both daughter’s points of view. Sounds like a great book!

  5. Julie P. says:

    I got this one signed at BEA and I do think it looks very “book club worthy.” I’m looking forward to seeing how I feel about the characters.

  6. BermudaOnion says:

    I picked this up at BEA because I’ve heard so much about it. It sounds very thought provoking and like a book I’d like.

  7. Margot says:

    Sounds like there is much to think about and discuss during and after reading this book.

  8. Jenners says:

    Ooohhh…this does sound interesting. One thing I liked about The Lonely Polygamist is that everyone knows about everybody else and they are all on a level playing field competing for attention. It seems so sad in this one that there is a “lesser” family.

  9. Lisa says:

    This does sound like a good choice for a books club, so much to think about and discuss.

  10. Staci says:

    This one sounds pretty interesting to me!!

  11. it sounds like an interesting idea and I am sure it would be great for book club discussion…but I am not sure it is a book that I would really enjoy for some reason.

  12. softdrink says:

    I’d read it just for the cover, but then I’m shallow like that.

  13. Doret says:

    Dana was my favorite. I think it was smart of Jones to being with the second family first. Though I thought the author made it easy to like both sisters.

    Jones did signed in Atlanta the other night and had a very good turn out. I got my copy.

    This would make an excellent book club read

  14. Ceri says:

    I’m fascinated by stories of polygamy. I love stories that centre around one family in general but when it comes to polygamy and multiple wives, the subject really does fascinate me. I love that TV show Big Love and am always keen to pick up books like this so thank you for your review. 🙂

  15. Amy says:

    I like when my feelings about a character change over the course of the novel although I like it best if I end the book liking the character. It makes the character feel more life-like if they annoy me at times (so long as I still like them, too!) This story is intriguing particularly with Dana and Gwen knowing about Chaurisse and Laverne but not the other way around. I think telling the story from the view point of the two girls is interesting, too.

  16. stacybuckeye says:

    The cover is appealing, but I’m not sure about the story. For some reason polygamy stories really turn me off. I can read anything so I find this weird, but not worth fixing 😉

  17. amymckie says:

    OK, now that I’ve finished reading the book myself and have my review written, I can finally come back here to both read your review and comment! I really really loved the book, am so glad that I got it at BEA (why yes I creepily showed up early and hung around the booth so that I’d be at the front of the line – ended up being second), but how silly of me to leave it so long before reading it! As per our twitter convo, I agree completely 😀

  18. Pingback: Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland

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