I read two great reviews about this book in the same week. Curious and intrigued by any story of a biracial woman that is more than a sexually charged romance, I bought it immediately. I was interested and captivated, but ultimately disappointed.
This debut novel is about the life and family of Emma Boudreaux, a woman who is half black and half white. Emma's father, Bernard Boudreax, Jr.(often referred to as "Bernard II"), is a Princeton Professor who so hates being black that he marries a white woman that he does not love, just so that his children won't look like him. This triggered a little red light in my mind –to me, no matter what the root of it, such behavior is called self-hatred, and it isn't inherent in being of any particular race. Throughout Bernard II's entire marriage, he retains an unsettled feeling that all he had accomplished will be somehow mysteriously taken away from him -- his academic achievements, his family, his home. He is never peaceful or satisfied. He lives an unhappy and secluded life, always detached from his wife and children, and ultimately leaves them. Emma's brother, Bernard III, is tragic for no reason. (And I really hate characters who are tragic for no good reason. They come off as annoyingly self-involved.) I suppose he acts out because his father is not there, even when Bernard II is physically present, and his grandfather, Bernard I, is a secret. And Emma composes haiku's, spontaneously, from the age of 8 or 9. I'm a smart girl myself, but I find that disturbing, not clever or impressive. She never seems to have any friends and defines herself at all times through her tragic older brother. I didn't like any of the characters, except perhaps Emma's maternal aunt, who appears for maybe two chapters.
It wasn't that it was a bad book. The writing is good, precise, and poetic. And the story of biracial Emma Boudreaux's is interesting, and it certainly isn't one that I have heard before. The story of her father, her brother, her family, is captivating and heartbreaking at the same time. But the messages, the themes, that I am left with are (1) that it is a harsh, cruel and almost unbearable burden to be black in America, and (2) the smart people who are black or mixed belong nowhere. The novel gives no inkling that there is anything positive about being black. On one hand, that isn't the message that I expected at all, so I was quite surprised. On the other, I actually find the message kind of offensive. Then again, perhaps this is exactly the kind of story that some white Americans will be able to relate to. As I said, a disappointing thought.
I read that Emma Boudreaux is Emily Raboteau, and it's no coincidence that their names are similar. I hope this isn't really true. I have sympathy for the characters in the book, and perhaps for the author, in the sense that what has happened to them is sad and unfortunate. But I really hope that the author does not find it quite so tragic and unbearable to be black or mixed in the United States. Often difficult, but not a burden that always ends in disaster. In fact, there are even good things about it. Happy, beautiful things. I am sorry Emily and Emma missed out on all of that.