Thursday, May 31, 2012

book review: I Wish I Had a Red Dress by Pearl Cleage

The backstory: Pearl Cleage is one of my favorite authors, and this year I'm reading and re-reading all of her novels is the order they were published. I Wish I Had a Red Dress is her second novel, and it features the same setting and some of the same characters from her first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (my review). I read this novel when it was first published in 2001, but I remembered little about it.

The basics: I Wish I Had a Red Dress is the story of Joyce, the older sister of Ava, who was the narrator of What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. Joyce is a former social worker who now runs the Circus, a gathering place for young, black women in Idlewild, Michigan. These women are almost all teen moms.

My thoughts: If you begin to read I Wish I Had a Red Dress and have not read What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, the first ten pages might do you in. Joyce rolls through her tragic back story with such speed, you might wonder what story is left to tell. As the story moves on, however, it becomes clear this novel is a tale of redemption firmly grounded in reality. Joyce's work at the Circus amazed and inspired me, but it also depressed me. Thankfully, these troubled young people weren't the only focus of this novel. Sister, Idlewild's new pastor, and her husband are close friends of Joyce and soon play matchmaker.

I adore the way Pearl Cleage writes. Her writing shines a light on contemporary black life and tells wonderful stories. What keeps I Wish I Had a Red Dress from being as perfect as What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day is the balance of those two things. At times, this novel felt more like social commentary than a story.

Favorite passage:  "I never understood the idea of war as a manhood test. It requires and develops such a specific set of skills that the next question has to be how do you translate the things that make a great soldier into the things that women want and children need from that very same man once the war is over?"

The verdict: Although I Wish I Had a Red Dress is not quite as strong as What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, it is still a deeply moving tale of contemporary black rural life. In Joyce, Pearl Cleage has made a woman who not only articulates the problems of young black women in Idlewild, she tries to solve them. Joyce is a character to admire, but more importantly, she's a character whose imperfections are as real as her drive to change the world.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: July 3, 2001
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy I Wish I Had a Red Dress from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

10 comments:

  1. I've never read anything by this author but I definitely need to keep her in mind. I usually like books that have social commentary in them so I'm wondering if I would really like this.

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    1. Jenny, I bet you would like. Definitely start with What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day though--it has plenty of social commentary too!

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  2. I'm adding Cleage to my TBR -- I want to read more diverse fiction and your enthusiasm has sold me!

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    1. Audra--I can't wait to see what you think of her!

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  3. I have never read anything by Cleage, but once checked out the first book and had to return it before it got read. It sounds like these two books are solid reads, but I also might get a little annoyed with the social commentary aspect of the plot in this one. I will be checking out the first one again soon, and will make sure to read it before I need to get it back to the library!

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    1. Zibilee--I hope you find time to read Cleage. I'll look forward to your thoughts!

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  4. I love reading your reviews about Cleage's books. I love her writing. Thanks for highlighting this great author.

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    1. Vasilly--Thanks! I'm amazed how few people have heard of Cleage. She's my favorite author, and I love being able to bring her work to the attention of more readers!

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  5. Pearl Cleage is a new-to-me-author, and it sounds like I'm missing out! The cover and title definitely drew me in immediately, and it sounds like an entertaining yet powerful read.

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    1. Meg, I hope you take time to read Cleage. I'll be reviewing all of her books in the coming months to entice you even more:-)

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!