Tayari Jones writes an original story about a man with two families – two wives and two daughters. Written first from the voice of the “secret” daughter, Dana, and later by her unknowing half-sister, Chaurisse, we see how James Witherspoon tries to balance his two lives. And because Dana and her mother Gwen know they came second, after James’s marriage to Laverne, it’s a secret that is too big to keep.
Besides the obvious duplicity of bigamy, Jones takes a look at the complicated relationships between father and daughter, from generation to generation. She shows how these relationships can fail, and how they are sometimes too broken to fix.
I think most of her characters struggle to understand themselves and want to do the right thing for the people they love. I felt sorry for Dana and Gwen when I read Dana’s side of the story. They feel second-best and I wanted to forget that Gwen consciously chose to get involved with a married man.
Sentiments change in the second half when we learn more about Laverne and Chaurisse and I think Jones is at her strongest here. I think Laverne is her most developed and best character when we see that she is a loving mother and a hard-working business-owner who is respected by her friends and salon clients. I became even more attached to her as I learned about her early relationship with James, Raleigh and Miss Bunny.
The bond between half-sisters is also touching before all secrets are told and I enjoyed that part. I think Jones does a great job describing how Chaurisse feels less attractive than her new “silver” friend, Dana.
I think Raleigh, James’s step-brother, is the next best character and wish he had been more developed. Jones touches on Raleigh’s feelings for Gwen and his loyalties to both families and because his character is consistently good, I wanted him to find his own happiness.
Without giving away plot, there are weaknesses too, particularly when Jones describes action in the story. The description of Miss Bunny’s brooch and its whereabouts is awkward. There seem to be gaps in this explanation and I’m not sure I understand how exactly it changes hands. The scene at the gas station outside Atlanta is equally confusing and, although written through the eyes of a 17-year-old girl, needs to be clearer.
I also think the Al Green reference is a little forced and I’m not sure why Jones decided to include this true story of Mary White assaulting Green with boiling grits. Maybe she wants us to understand Laverne’s own spirituality. I don’t know.
This is an easier read, despite the serious subject. Although the ending has drawn reader criticism, I was satisfied with the less-than-perfect conclusion.
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