Mother didn’t ruin my childhood or anyone’s marriage. She is a good person. She prepared me. Life, you see, is all about knowing things. That is why my mother and I shouldn’t be pitied.
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones is the story of two sisters with the same father and different mothers. No big, right? Yes, except the father is married to both of their mothers at the same time, and I’m not talking Big Love style. No, he has his main wife and family and a second, secret family.
The major tension in this book is the difference between knowing and not knowing. Dana and her mother, Gwendolyn, are well aware of Chaurisse and her mother, Laverne. Dana’s mom argues that having the knowledge gives them an advantage over James’s other family. However, it’s a dangerous kind of knowing. Dana knows from a very young age that she is second best to her father: her needs, wants, and life always come after Chaurisse’s. Because James can’t risk getting caught, Dana often lives in a holding pattern, waiting to see what activities or schools or events Chaurisse participates in before being allowed to commit to anything herself. She also has a distinct awareness that James loves Chaurisse more. Dana is the other, less important daughter, which leads to her accepting unacceptable behavior and spying on James’s other family to see what she’s missing out on.
Chaurisse, on the other hand, gets her father full time (except on Wednesdays when he “works late”). So, in that way, her journey is a typical young adult journey. She’s not very popular, and she’s not always happy. She wants a best friend and a boyfriend. She has a good relationship with her parents. They’re comfortably middle class. Chaurisse also doesn’t live with the heavy secret Dana does. Oh, she has secrets. Her father doesn’t know she’s sexually active, for example. But, mostly, she’s on a path to learn that her parents are fallible, that they make mistakes, that she won’t always understand their choices.
What surprised me most about this novel is how sympathetic Jones makes the characters. All of the characters. I even felt a sliver of sympathy for James at one point. (A tiny, tiny sliver, but it was there.) It would have been very easy for Jones to make James, Dana’s mother, and the girls’ uncle all villains, but not once do I feel hatred towards any of them. I’m frustrated by James, I’m sad for (and, yes, at times, pity) Gwen, my heart aches for Raleigh. But I understand why they make the choices they do. I get that they’re all doing their best. I mean, sure, James creates the mess by stepping outside of his marriage in the first place, but I can see where he thinks that marrying his daughter’s mother is the right thing so the child won’t be a bastard and the mom can have some sense of respectability. I can see why Dana’s mom insists on being married, even if it means having a part-time husband. And I definitely understand Raleigh’s sense of loyalty, his willingness to go along with the lie, and his heartache. Oh, Raleigh. My hurt so much for him.
So what I’m saying is A+ characters all around.
Jones takes an interesting approach by splitting the narrative between the two girls. The first half of the story is told from Dana’s point of view and the second from Chaurisse’s. On one hand, I was so involved with Dana’s story that I wanted it to continue. On the other, I knew I wanted to hear Chaurisse’s side. Then, of course, there’s the way the second half of the novel is tinged with the best kind of dramatic irony. The audience knows so much more than Chaurisse which gives her narrative so many heartbreaking layers because she doesn’t know what the audience can see so clearly. So a risky choice, but it definitely pays off.
This book had been on my radar for a while, but I hadn’t picked it up because I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m glad my friend Jasmine told me to read it, and I’m glad Vasilly chose it for her African-American Read-In.
Silver Sparrow is an engaging and solid read with excellent characters and an atypical but intriguing premise.
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