I read this book through Netgalley. It will be published on July 11, 2017. Preorder your copy now.
I am fascinated by historical fiction that takes place in my lifetime. On the one hand, it takes me back to my youth where I can re experience the events I lived through. On the other, novels like this show me this time through the eyes of someone who inhabited a vastly different reality. Because of this, they expand my perceptions so that I experience and understand my own history anew.
Sophie, her older sister, Lily, and their parents live in Los Angeles in 1965. They are a well to do black family who have just moved into a primarily white neighbourhood. Their parent's relationship is tenuous. Both are well educated professionals. Their absent, philandering father is a defence attorney, and their controlling mother runs an art gallery. Sophie has a lot to deal with as she anticipates Lily leaving at the end of the summer to go away to college.
The story begins with the family hiring a new housekeeper, Mrs Baylor. Sophie and Mrs Baylor don't hit it off. Sophie misses their previous housekeeper while Mrs Baylor assumes that Sophie thinks she is better than her because her skin is lighter.
Skin color, and shades of color play a significant role in this novel. Lily passes as white and manages to get a job in a salon that is reputed to not hire colored people. When Lily begins a relationship with Nathan, Mrs Baylor's son, their mother does not approve. She claims that it is because they are too different, but the reality is that Nathan, who is a student at Berkeley, has darker skin. The two continue a clandestine relationship that Sophie keeps secret. Nathan introduces the girls, both advertently and inadvertently, to new ways of looking at themselves in relation to the white world around them. The backdrop of the Watts Riots show them that no matter how well off they are, and where they live, they are not immune to the racism that surrounds them.
Sophie's best friend, Jennifer, is a white girl who lives across the street. She sticks up for Sophie when a group of other white girls reveal their racism. When Jennifer befriends one of these girls, Sophie begins to understand that Jennifer really doesn't understand what life is like for her.
Karen English has created a brilliant cast of complex characters. They are fully realized, nuanced people, flaws and all. She manages to highlight their humanity, no matter what happens. I appreciate that Jennifer and her family try hard to not see skin color as an issue, but that we also understand how impossible this is. It's only in the past few years that I have come to see my own ignorance in claiming to not see this difference.
This is an important coming of age novel. Sophie has a lot to come to terms with: who she is and wants to be, her changing family circumstances, her sister leaving home, and what it means to her be a person of colour. At the same time, it's sure to educate and open the eyes of readers as well.
The best books are those that transform the way you see the world.
This is one of those.
It begs to be paired with The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.