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Daughters get their day in Tayari Jones' 'Silver Sparrow'

| Sunday, June 12, 2011

It may not match "Call me Ishmael," but one could do worse than opening a novel with "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist."

That's how Tayari Jones begins "Silver Sparrow," her third novel, which chronicles two African-American families in Jones' native Atlanta.

James may be the common denominator joining those families together, but "Silver Sparrow" belongs to his two daughters, born four months apart in 1969.

The illegitimate Dana is older and gets to tell her story first, but she is second in almost every other way as she grows up in the shadows with her mother, Gwen.

James may visit them once a week for dinner. And James clearly loves Dana, contributing toward her education from his earnings as a chauffeur and worrying that the punk she dates in high school will leave her high and dry.

But despite his nominal presence in her life, James is largely absent, and it takes its toll on Dana's self-esteem. She and her mother spy on James' legitimate family, pining for what they do not have -- even as they recognize that they "lived in a world where you could never want what you wanted out in the open."

Beautiful and smart, Dana reaches her teen years fueled by increasing insecurity and resentment that she is playing second fiddle to her sister, Chaurisse, who has no idea Dana even exists -- let alone any notion of the sacrifices Dana and Gwen make to preserve Chaurisse's blissful ignorance.

Chaurisse gets her turn in the novel's second half. More secure than Dana, she speaks in a lighter and bouncier voice, and her often wise and good-natured humor contrasts starkly with Dana's unpredictable moods.

"My mother," Chaurisse tells us, "could be anyone's mother -- as medium as my father, but a bit on the plump side. If you saw them walking down the street, if you noticed them at all, you would think the two of them might produce invisible children."

Chaurisse is much too funny to ever be invisible, but she knows she is average and largely accepts it; comfortably middle class, she can afford to. Her world revolves around her mother's in-home beauty salon and parents whose love for her goes unquestioned.

As the sisters' creator, Jones herself has tried to be a good parent, scrupulously dividing the pages and attention she gives her offspring.

Chaurisse is more rounded and accessible, making her easier to understand and like.

But Dana's forbidden and inexpressible desires make her secrecy inevitable while giving her good reason for acting out as she does -- even when that means stalking her sister, which sets in motion the inevitable collision between James' two carefully separated worlds. Dana is harder to know, but she isn't underwritten.

I can't say the same for Jones' male characters; the most important of whom get evenhanded treatment but nevertheless remain on the thin side. Even James is more of a plot device than a person, confirming Gwen's observation that "a man is just a man, and that's all we have to work with."

Jones' women, on the other hand, are all drawn well, from the sisters and their mothers to minor characters such as the sisters' dying grandmother and Gwen's wisecracking friend, Willie Mae. The exchanges between mothers and daughters are often moving and always ring true. Despite an overly tidy plot, so does the novel as a whole.

Jones gives us permission to love all of its women, though they are flawed and often refuse to love each other. That's a recipe for great book club discussions, and I wouldn't be surprised to see "Silver Sparrow" featured in many.

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