The Women of Brewster Place / Gloria Naylor
New York: Penguin, 1983, c1982.
I finally read this classic novel, and both liked it and disliked it, for various reasons. It's a novel told in seven stories, and it's probably natural that I really liked some of the characters shown, and didn't much like others -- or, didn't like what happened to those others.
There are seven primary characters: Mattie Michael, Etta Mae Johnson, Lucielia "Ciel" Turner, Melanie "Kiswana" Browne, Cora Lee, Lorraine, and Theresa. Each of the seven has a featured story in the Seven Stories that make up this novel. They all cross over into one another's stories as well, along with the multitude of incidental characters who live in and around Brewster Place.
There have been essays, theses, papers and more written about this novel; there was even a tv miniseries made by Oprah in 1990.
But my own personal feeling about it was that it was hard-hitting, energetic, and very sad, told with gritty realism and a sense of oppression throughout. I felt for these women, I didn't want to see the ends I saw coming, I was hoping to see some overcoming, some joy. But there wasn't too much of it here.
While each character had a strong story, I was taken with Melanie -- a young educated woman who has moved to Brewster Place and taken on the name Kiswana in solidarity with the community and with black history. Her mother can't really understand why Melanie has done this, when she has a perfectly good home in a more upscale neighbourhood and the benefit of a university degree and some family money. She also questions Melanie's decision to change her name, saying "I gave you my grandmother's name, a woman who bore nine children and educated them all..." This struck me, obviously.
The ending was a little odd, a sudden outbreak of magical realism with the neighbourhood tearing down the wall that divided them from a better life, brick by brick. I wasn't sure what to make of it. I like the symbolism of it but am not sure how to read it; it feels separate from the rest of the book in its tone.
While I know this is a classic and I am glad I read it, I wouldn't recommend picking it up if you are already feeling down or hopeless. It is very sad, no sugar coating here. And there are some pretty horrific scenes of sexual violence near the end, just so you are prepared.