New relationships, new babies, new homes. It’s all about hopefulness and dreams for a happy future. And that’s what the three main characters in Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s debut novel cling to—hope. And yet, as readers, we know things that they don’t. We know where things will turn out well and where they won’t. And that makes the longing and optimism at the heart of the story all the more potent.
The story follows three generations of a black New Orleans family. There’s Evelyn, a doctor’s daughter who is falling in love with a janitor’s son in the 1940s. In the 80s, Evelyn’s daughter, Jackie, is raising an infant son and hoping her pharmacist husband will be able to get clean from drugs. And in 2010, T.C. is just out of prison and torn between his desire to stay straight and the pressure to relaunch his previously successful marijuana business.
Instead of telling the story chronically, Sexton weaves the stories of these three generations together. So even as Evelyn and Renard fall in love, we know what their future holds. We see the hopes and dreams, and we see the outcome. The contrast is, at times, devastating, but, somehow, the hope never seems futile. And that, I think, is because so much of it is built on love. It’s love that brings Evelyn and Renard together, that keeps Jackie working so hard, that drives T.C. to get his life in order. Whether they’re successful doesn’t diminish that love.
But I don’t want to give the impression that this is a soppy book. The love the characters feel is complicated. Characters have opinions about each other’s choices. They’re supportive of each other, they don’t always like each other. Love is a hard road.
The novel also addresses issues of race, as characters face racism in various forms. And T.C.’s story reminded me of the recent report from the Equality of Opportunity Project about the lack of upward mobility across generations for so many black boys. Hurricane Katrina figures into the story as well, and we see how different families recover differently.
But the heart of this story, to me, is the family love across generations. The final moments of the book, knowing everything that is to come, are especially moving. Sexton captures significant moments beautifully, providing telling details and insights into her characters so that, even though the book is short, they all feel vivid and real.