Monday, July 29, 2013

The Bigamist's Daughters

Silver Sparrow
Tayari Jones' Silver Sparrow was one of the best audiobooks I've listened to in a long time.  The two narrators, Heather Alicia Simms and Rosalyn Coleman Williams, were absolutely fantastic and so authentic to their respective characters.  Silver Sparrow is worth reading in any format, but if you happen to find it in audiobook, it's a real treat.

The book is about two girls, Dana and Chaurisse, who have the same father but different mothers.  Their father is married to both their mothers - Dana knows about this double life, but Chaurisse does not.  Chaurisse is James Witherspoon's official daughter, so he acknowledges her and her mother publicly.  Dana is his "outside daughter," and so has lived elaborate lies her whole life.

Readers are first introduced to Dana; she narrates the first half of the book, telling us about her secret life and the combination of fascination and disdain that she and her mother feel for Chaurisse.  We meet Chaurisse later on and our interaction with her is defined by us, too, knowing about her father's secret life while she and her mother go on in blissful ignorance.  And then BOOM - we hit the climax and you realize just how complicated and sad the lives of these two girls are.

Both Dana and Chaurisse tell their stories in first person, and they know a lot of the same people.  One of the strengths of this book was the depth that came through in Chaurisse's section, as we learned more about the characters that we only really got glimpses of in Dana's story.  I thought Chaurisse's story was so much stronger than Dana's, not because Chaurisse was stronger, but because most of the action happened in the second half of the book.  But Dana's narrative really set us up for the emotional upheaval and pain that we experience throughout the second half of the book.

For example, Dana spends a lot of time in her half of the book talking about how badly she wants to go to Mt. Holyoke University.  But she can't go there if Chaurisse goes there because she and Chaurisse are not supposed to ever be in the same place.  And then we see Dana and Chaurisse interact and slowly form a friendship in the second half of the book.  Dana tells Chaurisse that she wants to go to Mt. Holyoke, and so one day Chaurisse tells her father that she wants to go to Mt. Holyoke.  And as a reader, my heart just broke for Dana.  That situation made it so clear just how unenviable her position was - that her dream rested so completely on someone else's whims.  And that someone didn't even realize it.

Another thing Tayari Jones did so well in this book was to bring to life some of the side characters and to show just how complicated their lives were made due to the double life of James Witherspoon.  James' best friend, Raleigh, had so much on his plate, trying to balance his love of his best friend against the life he wanted for himself.  You really only learn the depth of Raleigh's sacrifice and kindness in Chaurisse's half of the novel, and I just felt so deeply for him, even though he was never given the chance to share his own story with the readers.

Obviously a book about bigamy - particularly one in which half the characters don't even know about the bigamy - is unsettling.  And Jones is an author who does not mind leaving her readers uncomfortable and unsure.  The climax of the book and the falling action are so hard to get through, so wrenching, not only because you feel for both Dana and Chaurisse, but because you really can understand the motivations behind each character's actions.  (Except James Witherspoon, who never came off as anything but a selfish jerk in my opinion.)  It's hard to read.  And it's supposed to be - there are no easy answers here, just really hard situations related by memorable characters.

15 comments:

  1. I have this book and was unable to participate in a readalong from awhile ago. Now that you say the audio is great, perhaps I should do that! I do like to read/listen to a book and this sounds like a good approach for this powerful story.

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  2. Great review - I agree with all of it (which is of course undoubtedly why I think it is great - ha ha)

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  3. I'm happy you liked this book! Tayari does such a wonderful job bringing this story to life.

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  4. I am totally fascinated with this book so I have no idea why I haven't read it yet. Thank you for the reminder! The books have way of slipping away if I don't put them on my Goodreads list.

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  5. I think I have a copy of this book somewhere, but I have yet to read it. I remember when I first heard about it how much I wanted to read it, and after your review, I realize I need to hunt this one down. Great review!

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  6. Yes, love this book. I also think Jones does well not to make any of the characters villains, even though that would be so easy to do. They are human, doing the best they can, even if that means they make terrible decisions sometimes.

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  7. Wasn't it great? I loved this book so much. Agree with everything you said!

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  8. I loved it, too. While I didn't have any sympathy for the father, I did feel that I could see how he'd end up in the situation he was in, not by being monstrous, but by being self-centered an inadequately concerned about the people around him. I didn't like him, but I found him surprisingly understandable, for someone who did something so horrible.

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  9. I got totally swept up in your review, and I'm surprised because it doesn't sound the sort of book I'd be fascinated with (interested but not too much). I guess that means I have to look it up!

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  10. Ok I am not sure about the ending now, I do not wanna be tormented

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  11. Have you read anything else by Tayari Jones? I want to read everything by her in the maximal best order for me to love her the most at the end. But I don't really know how all her books compare to each other. (This one sounds sliiiiightly less interesting to me than Leaving Atlanta.)

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  12. I loved this one quite a bit. I thought the story was so well told and it's fascinating how much you feel even for James, when he's the reason for all this trouble. The ending was just super-sad.

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  13. This one dropped off my radar, so thank you for the reminder and the audio recommendation! I listened to an earlier book by the author, The Untelling, and it was also an excellent audio, narrated by Michele Blackmon.

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  14. From the first sentence, I loved the way she pulls readers into this story. And I agree that she manages to create a degree of understanding for each character, even, I think, the father/husband, because although, as you've said, you can't help but be overwhelmed by his selfishness, I really did feel that he loved both families and just could not reconcile that, rather than simply thinking he had no feelings at all about the situation. So even though I still wished that he would have made different choices, he was still a believable character for me, rather than simply a two-dimensional cut-out.

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  15. Man, this sounds good. Now I can't decide if I want to read it in print or audio....

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