We love to give you a variety of great book recommendations, but we know it can be hard to pick your next one (even from a small stack). So, if you only have time to read one book this month, consider making it our book editor's top pick of September 2019.
Two black families gather in a Brooklyn brownstone for teenager Melody’s coming out ceremony in National Book Award winner (and four-time finalist) Jacqueline Woodson’s second novel written for adults, Red at the Bone ($20, amazon.com).
The novel’s narrative moves through time, switching characters and perspectives in short, lyrical passages and chapters. In flashbacks, Melody’s parents, Iris and Aubrey, reminisce on the heady early days of their high school romance before they found out Iris was pregnant. Iris recounts her decision to leave baby Melody with Aubrey and her disappointed, ashamed parents and head off to college at Oberlin, where she begins a relationship with another woman. Aubrey, heartbreakingly, remembers how he and Iris drifted apart.
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Among the book’s most memorable chapters, Sabe, Melody’s grandmother, shares how her family fled Tulsa after white people began burning black businesses, including her own grandmother’s salon—a trauma that raw and fresh no matter how prosperous and successful her and her husband have been since. (“Separate as Tulsa was, people found ways to live their lives with each other in it. Until it got to be too much and black folks got to have more than white folks felt was right,” she remembers.)
Melody, at present in 2001, wears the white dress her mother would have worn 16 years earlier had she gone through with her own ceremony, argues with her parents about playing Prince, and considers where she fits in her mother’s story.
“And as we dance, I am not Melody who is sixteen, I am not my parents’ once illegitimate daughter—I am a narrative, someone’s forgotten story,” Melody thinks. “Remembered.” Memory—and how difficult choices and trauma ripple through a family and across generations—is at the heart of this novel. So is the legacy of racism and class and the beautiful and sometimes fraught relationships between mothers and daughters.
In another author’s hands, this would be a 500-page saga. But Woodson, as she did in Another Brooklyn, tells this family’s story—a complex one spanning nearly a century—with tremendous emotional power in less than 200 pages. Seeing how Woodson manages this, down to the very last word, feels like witnessing a small miracle.