On Monday the BPL book discussion group got together to talk about Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Here is the summary:
"With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist, author Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man's deception, a family's complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle.
Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon's two families;the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode. This is the third stunning novel from an author deemed one of the most important writers of her generation."
Now on to our lively discussion. Please remember, these are notes. When I use "I" I am often referring to the person who said the comment. I do not identify participants for their own privacy, but it does give you a sense of the range of opinions shared:
- We had 6 likes, 1 dislike, and 7 so-sos. With so many so-sos I was worried that the discussion would be tough going, but thankfully I was wrong. This was a boisterous discussion that had me actually having to shush people, and any of you out there who know me at all know this is a big deal. I am no shush-er.
- The disliked was firmly standing her ground; she could not like the book because of how much she disliked James, the father. A lot of the group then chimed in on their dislike for James, but I made everyone wait to talk about him. I didn't want James to rule our discussion from the start the way he ruled the girls' lives.
- One of the so-sos said she liked the book but felt like this really couldn't have happened in such a tight knit community. I butt in here and brought up this interview where in the last question Jones talks about all of the hidden children who have contacted her after reading this novel. In fact the entire interview is quite touching. I had never thought about the stigma of being a "half" sister before.
- How did you feel about the way the story was told using only the 2 girl's perspectives? We get Dana, the secret child who knows of the other family, first and then Chaurisse the legitimate child second. It is one timeline though, so the first half of the story is all from Dana and the second half all from Chaurisse.
- I liked that it did not alternate back and forth. We really had the chance to get into one character's head before the perspective changed.
- When I was in Dana's head, I loved her and then it switched. It was hard to like Chaurisse at first, she seemed a bit spoiled. She did not have it as hard as Dana, but in the end, I came to love her too. And then later, I got mad at Dana for her actions because I was so caught up in Chaurisse's point of view. It was a great way to tell this complicated family story.
- There were times I wanted to go back to Dana and see what she thought, but I am glad the author kept the two perspectives separated.
- Other general comments from the opening of discussion that I feel are worth sharing:
- The characters here were great.
- Bunny, the grandmother was more important that you think while you are reading the novel. Afterwards, I thought about her and her key role in everything that happens. I think she may be the hero of the book.
- I liked Dana and her mother (Gwen). I respected them. But I also liked and respected Chaurisse and Laverne too. That made the book more complicated but not confusing.
- There are not a ton of rotten bad guys here. Even James is not evil. (a few grumbles, but see below for James discussion)
- This novel felt like an easy read, but it was deceptively complex.
- I liked how racism was part of the book but at the same time not part of it. This was well done. The race and class issues are there throughout the book, but they are not the focus. You think about them because of how well the book is written, but this is not an "issue" book.
- The ending came up early in the discussion, so I ran with it. Here are some of the comments:
- The ending broke my heart. James cruelly dismissed Dana and would not allow her to be his daughter publicly.
- But could there have been a happy ending? Well, not happy, but less cruel. He could have not blamed Dana as harshly. He could have been willing to try to find a way to still be a part of her life.
- There was no way to make everyone happy.
- There was no catharsis at the end as I see in other books. We discussed this comment a bit more. Is there catharsis always in life? No. Dana did get a catharsis when she saw James' true colors. At that point she stopped being the "other" daughter and started living her life-- we see this in the Epilogue.
- When I finished the book I was not sad, but I felt sadness for both girls and Raleigh. I was conflicted about Gwen.
- Yes, Gwen should have cut ties earlier and given Dana a better life.
- I asked the group if James love Laverne.
- Some said no, but most said yes. It was different than his more sexual/desire based love for Gwen.
- He loved Laverne like a sister. They were put together at such a young age because Laverne got pregnant. When she lost the baby, James, Raleigh, and Laverne were a family. Teenagers growing up together and taking care of each other. There was love and affection there.
- Did anyone think when Dana made James own up to the second family and he was forced to choose a "wife" that he would choose Gwen?
- Gwen was sexual love but Laverne was family.
- Laverne also knew she was not a first choice wife from the start of their relationship, so when Laverne found out that James (after being thrown out of Laverne's house) did not go back to Gwen even once, she knew she was chosen fairly and finally won. She took him back and did a public recommitment ceremony to show the world.
- Why did Gwen choose to bring everything up publicly after 18 years?
- Sheer anger. If James had handled himself better at the gas station when the 2 girls were stranded with a flat tire, Gwen's anger would have been less.
- Speaking of the gas station scene, we all agreed that it was fabulously written. It was the best scene in the book, and even one of the best scenes we had read in awhile in any book. We talked at length about what happened. We were most struck by James' behavior. His refusal to deal with the confrontation in front of him showed his true colors to Dana and Chaurisse (and us, the reader). If Laverne had been there, we were not sure she would take him back.
- But everything about the scene was great.
- It should be used to teach new writers.
- Ahhh, James. I finally let us go off on him.
- Bigamist, but Gwen was complicit. She was not innocent here. Laverne on the other hand had no idea. Then again, when she did find out, she took him back eventually.
- He only loved himself.
- But he was not a monster. He loved Gwen and Laverne in different ways. He had to marry Laverne but he loved Gwen. He was also trying to be the best Dad he could be to both girls given the circumstances.
- He was a fair and proud business owner and brought Chaurisse into the limo business.
- I finally took a vote on the group's opinion of James (their idea), but we decided not to go with like and dislike. Instead I asked for anti-James and neutral-James votes. I got 6 anti and 8 neutral.
- One neutral ended this line of discussion by saying he really did try to do the best he could, he simply made bad choices. Look at families today. There are a lot worse situations; a lot worse dads.
- We moved on to talking about Laverne.
- What were her choices really?
- She could have had the baby and adopted it out and then go back to her own life. But we were unclear if her mom would have taken her back.
- When she lost the baby and asked Bunny if she had to go back now, we all felt for young Laverne. So innocent, such a child. Being with Bunny and James may have been the best thing to happen to her in the long run. Yes, he cheated on her, but she became a successful business woman (with no high school degree) and in the end he committed to her for the rest of his life (we think).
- Again the ladies wanted a vote. Is Laverne better off for having married James? 9 said yes. Only 3 said worse off. One chimed in that living a lie is not worth it.
- What about Gwen then? Is she better off for having married James too. All said No.
- He made her full of anger.
- She was too smart for all of this.
- Someone spoke up to remind us that we are all white Northerners. All of the characters are Southern African Americans. We may have trouble completely understanding the underlying issues here.
- On a similar note, someone else said, I do not think about bigamy much but this opened my eyes. It was taking place in middle class Atlanta, not overseas or in Utah. Very interesting.
- We were winding down and people were quite spent after all of the back and forth we had going and because of their intense passion for the book and the charcaters, so there was not as much energy for final words and phrases as usual. But we did get some:
- well written
- just one more chapter (That's how she felt as she read it; I will just read one more chapter)
- complex but easy to follow
Readalikes: The sisters angle reminded me of Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry. Click here for my review on that novel.
If you liked the compelling story of teenage African American girls here, you should try the award winning Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward which is about surviving Katrina. The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate is also a good contemporary, literary fiction, African American story.
If you want to look at the effect of bigamy from the wife's perspective, multiple sources pointed me toward The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen as a good choice. In this case the setting is Saudi Arabia.
The lyrical writing and the hidden family secrets angle of this novel also reminded me of The Thirteenth Tale. Click here to see a report from when the BPL book discussion group read it. This novel is in the Gothic style, but the family secrets and hidden siblings here are just as "juicy;" actually there are probably more so.
If you liked the family drama aspects of the novel, especially with a coming-of-age teen protagonist relating it all to the reader, I would also suggest My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult (the Queen of families with issues), Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple, or Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (you'll have to scroll down a bit for that review).
If you liked the combination of a character centered story that still has a compelling pace and strong sense of place, I would also suggest Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (time period strong) or The Round House by Louise Erdrich (setting strong).
For a completely different take on bigamy, I really liked Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist.
One final note here on the readalikes, all of these titles would be a great book discussion group choice.