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
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