Josie Henderson, 36, is the only black senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. Her husband Danny, who is white, is also a scientist there. Her marriage isn’t satisfying to her; she feels hungers that she can’t express with Danny, who is a quiet loving man who just wants Josie and a family. Josie loves Danny, but wants something different; she wants more sexual diversity and she doesn’t want kids. She wants more excitement and more zip in her life. And in fact, her marital situation is a reflection of the existential dichotomy that is constantly ripping apart Josie’s psyche. She is a black person in a mostly white milieu, and she is ambivalent about it. Part of her wants to remain totally separate from her background, which included coming from a blighted city and a family destroyed by alcoholism. In fact, it is partly the fear of being pulled into that spiral of failure that has driven her. But another part of her wants to celebrate her brownness and share her ethnic predilections with someone who “gets” them.
Much of Josie’s story concerns the two men of her nuclear family: her father, whose alcoholism broke the family apart, and her brother “Tick” who now is addicted to alcohol and drugs. Josie avoids both of them; she is full of contempt, shame, and fear that associating them will somehow contaminate her. She especially resents her father for giving up his family to the siren call of alcohol. And yet, when another black scientist, Ben, finally comes to Woods Hole, Josie is willing to throw away her own family to experience some of what she herself has been craving.
Discussion: Given Josie’s own weaknesses, I found her lack of sympathy for her father and brother rather astonishing. She is totally focused on their failures, and exhibits a total lack of self-awareness about her own. (This in spite of Josie’s contention that “I’m a scientist. I like to get to the bottom of things.”) Certainly she could be angry and sad and want to distance herself alongside of some understanding for them. And indeed, Josie seems flummoxed that her mother still feels something for her father, as if relationships have to be all good all the time or love can’t or shouldn’t persist. I also thought it unrealistic that given her scientific bent and understanding of the limitations of twelve-step programs that she would not have helped her brother get into some of the programs that use opioid receptor antagonists for management of alcohol and drug addiction.
At the end of the book, I didn’t see that Josie had any more insight than she had at the beginning. Some characters were badly hurt, some were struggling mightily with their own demons, but Josie was just ready to go on blithely, still convinced that no one else’s problems or pain were more important than her own inner conflicts.
Evaluation: I didn’t like Josie, the main character, and wasn’t convinced of her verisimilitude as an accomplished black scientist. I also thought that Southgate attributed some differences to race that weren’t necessarily justified; there are a lot of variables that can cause couples not to share the same outlook or taste in music, for example, from age to social class to the community in which you grew up. Southgate didn’t convince me (in this narrative, at any rate) that Ben’s appeal over Danny was due to anything more than external color, and that seemed rather ironically short-sighted of Josie after spending her life trying to prove that external color is superfluous. And finally, I didn’t feel anything actually happened in the book to change the protagonist. It left me feeling rather dissatisfied.
Published by Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing, 2011