The daughter of former New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard (1920–90) relentlessly pursues the story of his mixed racial heritage, which he had concealed.
Bliss Broyard began her own career with a collection of short stories, My Father Dancing (1999), published nine years after her mother finally revealed that Anatole came from a New Orleans family of blacks and Creoles. Bliss and her brother were, to say the least, surprised. They had grown up in suburban Connecticut, spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard and attended exclusive, mostly white schools. Although the kids had met their grandmother and an aunt when they were small, their father never mentioned his large extended family in the Big Easy. After he died, his daughter determined to get it all and to get it right, embarking on years of prodigious research involving multiple trips to New Orleans; searches for birth certificates, former homes, places of business; numerous interviews with family, friends, lovers, employers. The result is a complicated and sometimes distracting tapestry that weaves together the Broyard family tree, her father’s biography and her mother’s much briefer backstory with her own childhood, adolescence and young womanhood. Adding to the narrative ungainliness are large—sometimes too large—doses of social history: of New Orleans, of race in America, even of DNA testing. Despite occasional silliness, as when the author mentions that some people had always said she danced like a black girl, the tone here is generally serious. A not-so-admirable Anatole Broyard emerges. Though his daughter endeavors to understand him, less forgiving readers will be repulsed by his cold rejection of his birth family, his serial sexual escapades before and during his marriages, his ferocious, vaulting ambition, his personal and professional arrogance, his paternal pettiness. These are not qualities that Bliss Broyard wishes to highlight, but she does not downplay them either.
The expansive narrative is in need of pruning. Still, this uniquely American story of race and ambition is of surpassing importance.