Reviewed by Amy Gruzesky
I had high hopes for this short novel by award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson, and I was not disappointed.
Having been named one of Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of 2019, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year 2019, and an instant NYT’s Best Seller, my only concern was that perhaps it might be a bit overhyped.
The book is a family saga that starts out with Melody’s sweet sixteen party and a private moment shared with her mother Iris. However, it is not the happy moment one would expect, as we learn that Melody is the result of a fifteen-year-old Iris’s unplanned pregnancy, and the two are not close. In fact, Melody doesn’t even call Iris “Mom,” opting instead, from the time she was a young child, to call her by her given name, Iris.
Despite their strained relationship, we learn it was Iris’s desire to have and keep her baby, despite what it might do to Iris and her family, as well as that of the baby’s father, that cemented Melody’s existence and place in the family.
However, that same drive and determination that Iris shows in ensuring Melody is born, are also the forces that cause her to drift away from her daughter, her family, and Melody’s father as she leaves them to pursue a college education “at the one college located farthest away” from Brooklyn that she was accepted at.
As Iris pursues her dreams, we are then taken on a multi-decade, multi-generational tale told through flashbacks and memories from all of the family members. It is through these stories that we learn of each character’s secret fears, desires, wants, and yes, disappointments, as well as some struggles and hardships they had to overcome in their pasts.
These telling, intimate glimpses into their lives, expertly woven into each chapter by Woodson, and peeled away layer by layer, slowly and deliberately, allow the reader to truly come to know and understand each family member.
In some instances, in particular with Iris’s own mother, Sabe, reactions and emotions that may appear harsh and unforgiving are rooted in past hardships and experiences, and the beauty of being able to learn about the full arc of these characters’ lives is that we also get to see them change and come to terms in oftentimes satisfying and redeeming ways.
Seeing these characters brought full circle, some in ways you won’t be able to anticipate, make this book a truly satisfying and emotional read, and you won’t soon be able to forget Iris, Sabe, Po’Boy, Aubrey, CathyMarie, and Melody.