An observant, gutsy journalist immerses herself in the lives of marginal Bronx residents.
Freelance writer LeBlanc wanted to understand a nearby culture different from her own, so she won permission to enter the lives of a Bronx family, and stayed more than ten years. Her story begins in the mid-1980s, as 16-year-old Jessica cruises Tremont Avenue, hoping to attract young men amid the drug trafficking and otherwise colorful street life on corner after corner. In the first of 39 densely populated chapters, newcomer LeBlanc introduces Jessica's extremely extended family, including her 32-year-old mother Lourdes; brother Robert, with whom Jessica shares a biological father; half-sister Elaine; half-brother Cesar; and Big Daddy, the 25-year-old meat-market butcher who fell in love with Lourdes after Jessica, the original object of his desire, introduced the couple. Boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, partners in crime, law-abiding friends, law-enforcement personnel, social workers, and merchants—all make cameo appearances, disappear, then sometimes reappear in dizzying fashion. LeBlanc’s narrative style, heavily reliant on novelistic techniques, is almost always gripping, although the storyline occasionally becomes confusing. Jessica’s never absent for long as the connecting character, but with so many supporting players in this real-life soap opera, a refresher on who’s who and who did what is often needed. Near the end, in 2001, as Jessica walks through the neighborhood, she is no longer a man magnet. She is many pounds heavier, self-conscious about her figure, but alive and doing better than just getting by, thanks to a security job in a bank. It is now Jessica's 16-year-old daughter Serena and Serena's friends who draw the attention of the men along the street. How will life turn out for Serena? LeBlanc has some thoughts that she works subtly into the narrative, but this is one saga the author can’t control.
Comparisons to Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here (1991) are inevitable and warranted.