Review: The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor

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4.5 out of 5

I readily admit I’m not always about character driven stories… because a lot of times, those are really boring. I think it’s because so much of the “character driven modern American literature” is what I think of as the triumvirate of boring: Steinbeck, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, those wondrous alcoholic men in their writing machines and their self-indulgent wank (I mean… their “masterpieces” *eyeroll*). I’ve never been able to engage with any of those guys. I’m coming to realize it’s because I much prefer the character driven stuff written by women. You know, where everyone is a person as opposed to some being characters and those with the vaginas being symbols.

The strength of this book is the rich, deep, varied characters that populate the pages, and their stories are told in gorgeous prose and in a way that had me completely engaged. We’re even given a complex history of the setting itself: Brewster Place began as a well-to-do white, newly made block of buildings, then as it got older, those of Mediteranean descent moved in, and then the first black man, a janitor, was hired and moved into a basement apartment. After that, the slow migration of the Europeans leaving and the black Americans arriving began. The story itself begins like a series of vignettes, showing how each woman was drawn to, or driven to, Brewster Place, and then how they mingled together once they got there. The prose is absolutely gorgeous. I immediately purchased the companion novel about Linden Hills and hope to get to it before the end of the month. (Edit: I’ve also heard there is a 3rd call the Men of Brewster Place. I don’t have that yet. Also, spoiler alert, I haven’t read Linden Hills yet but it’s calling to me from my shelves.)

The first story is about Mattie and her life as a young woman in Tennessee. She’s sheltered by her overprotective father and courted by a boring man, the only one her father lets near her. Temptation comes in the form of Butch Fuller. Personable, honest, and a bit of a hound dog,  Butch is too much to resist, and Mattie ends up pregnant. No longer welcome in her father’s house, having no faith in Butch to provide for her, she heads for the only place she knows she won’t be judged. Her friend Etta Mae is a wildcard. There’s no shame in her game, and I love her. Outspoken, defiant, unwilling to bend knee to anyone, Etta lives her life how she wants to live it. This is not easy for a black woman in the south, or even when she leaves the south and strikes out farther north or west. But sometimes, the schemes she wants for herself don’t come to fruition. This carefully rode the line between slut-shaming (which I don’t believe it it did but was something it could have fallen into, and it showed how other people reacted to her sexuality, which spoiler alert! was rarely positive) and showing an independent woman living life by her own rules. Sadly, society rarely accepts those kinds of women – but Etta Mae accepts herself and doesn’t give a fuck about society. We need more Etta Maes.

And we need more Gloria Naylor. She managed to tell us about these people’s lives, and steered clear of judgement. She made us do the judging – and I found myself doing it, and knowing it wasn’t right. She didn’t tell us  so-n-so was a bad mother – but she showed us everything we needed to know that was probably the case. And it made me think before I did my judging. Like, I was very quick to think Kiswana (more on her later) was a stereotypical college kid too high up on her high horse. But Naylor showed her as a person – in other words, complexly. None of us are one sided. None of us are stereotypes. Everyone has multiple sides, and Naylor is careful to show us the same in her characters. Some of those sides may be lacking but flaws don’t make people bad… it makes them people.

The only thing about Etta is that she’s not exactly stable… or someone you can rely on for too long. Soon, Mattie has to find a job and place to live, only now she has a baby in tow. Blind luck guides her to Miss Eva, a strange old woman with a strange old house and a big heart. The two form a bond and grow into a family. We spend some time there, but then Mattie ends up at Brewster Place. I’ll leave you to read the book to find out how. Mattie is the backbone of the novel in a lot of ways.

The Women of Brewster Place come from all slices of life. Kiswana is a product of the wealthier side of a predominately black area, Linden Hills. She’s an activist in the civil rights movement, critical of her parents, who she sees as having lost touch with the black experience. She’s basically slumming in Brewster Place, and her parents aren’t happy about it. There’s an amazing fight between the two women  –  this girl is taught that she didn’t fall far from her mama’s tree, and her mama is black and her experience is just as black as any young woman half her age and just as authentic, thank you very much. It’s an amazing piece of writing that is not only gorgeous to read (how many times can I call  this gorgeous?) but illuminating and really sums up the novel, in a way. Each woman has her burden and her triumphs, but this particular passage between mother and daughter is taut and beautifully written.

The most intense storyline is between Lorraine and Theresa. They are a lesbian couple who are trying to hide it. Lorraine is a school teacher, and has already lost a job because of her sexuality. Every time she fears they’ve been discovered, she gets nervous and they have to move. Now they’ve wound up in Brewster Place, despite being able to afford better, all so that there is enough distance between Lorraine and where she works. The neighbors are another story, though. Their demeanor changes once they start to catch on that the women are more than roommates, and this causes tension in their relationship.

There is a violent rape that was very difficult for me to read. I know why it was there. It’s a true thing that happens, but at that point, the story fell apart and my engagement was strained because there was no tangible follow through. I don’t want to ruin any of this, but I felt like so much was left unsaid and unexplained. The novel leaves the flesh and blood of the narrative that it had been so grounded in and enters a metaphorical realm that didn’t satisfy me as a reader – and in a way, I didn’t get the metaphor in the first place. It left me very confused and like it was saying the women were erasing something that happened rather than dealing with it or trying to heal it. That’s just my interpretation, and it could be totally wrong. If you are reading this review, or read the book after and get a different take, please leave a comment and let me know how you feel about it. It’s hard to put into words without spoiling it. I hope I’ve been specific enough to warn you but vague enough not to spoil anything.

Despite that, the journey of this novel is so good I don’t think this one part knocked it down at all for me. This novel touched on a lot of really difficult topics beyond the obvious racial subjects that you would expect in a novel written about black women and by a black woman (therefore, an own voices work and all the more relevant – but as a white woman, I feel like I should leave the more in depth things about that to those who know that experience). Many of them were beyond gender or race like love and sex and its many trials and beauties, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, poverty, LGBTQ issues, absent parents, abusive parents, overprotective parents, the pluses and minuses of living in a close knit community, on and on. It had both everyday human issues and issues of the black experience in America and tied them together. I wish more “All lives matter” proclaimers would read this. If all lives matter to white people, why do we treat black people like shit? I don’t think I have to say that casual and overt racism and micro aggressions towards black people are alllll throughout this. These things are ingrained in our society and they are things no white person will ever experience or understand… the best we can do is to read about it and listen to the people experiencing it. Speak up when you see it happen. All the issues covered in this book were relevant at the time it was published, they are just as relevant now. It’s over 30 years old. We haven’t improved much.

And all this just shaves the surface of the characters and stories inside this book. I really recommend this, whether you are looking to expand your “own voices” reading of diverse authors, or you just love really beautifully told stories, or love reading delicious prose, love reading about women. As I discovered how much internalized misogyny I was carrying around, I have appreciated every book I have read that explores the female experience and helps to strip away those layers – that shows women as the diverse, complex, flawed, people they are rather than the impossible, prepackaged objects, made for male consumption that the media shoves down our throats and insists we mimic. And then judges us for being. I’m definitely going to read more of Naylor’s work.

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