McKinney-Whetstone returns to familiar territory—the African-American community of West Philadelphia—in her latest novel (Blues Dancing, 1999, etc.).
This time out, a grandmother and granddaughter try to come to terms with the complicated woman who ties them together. Troubled Neena, who left home at 20 in search of her mentally ill mother, Freeda, returns to Philadelphia over a decade later desperate for help. She has been working as a blackmailer, having learned at a young age to use her charm and looks to her advantage, but things have gone awry. Neena hopes to seek refuge with her high-achieving sister, Tish, but soon learns that she is in the hospital due to a difficult pregnancy, clinging to her life. Standing between the two sisters is Nan, Neena’s estranged grandmother, who raised the girls after Freeda abandoned them when they were teenagers. Nan, a God-fearing dressmaker, has had her share of hardship—she spent much of her life caring for her alcoholic husband, Alfred, and clearly blames herself for both Freeda’s and Neena’s problems. When Neena returns, she and Nan have not spoken in many years, and Nan worries that Neena’s presence will upset Tish and harm her or the baby. With the links to her family severed, Neena flirts with the temptations of her old career when she is set up professionally with Cliff, a married aspiring politician. But as fragile Neena, in some of the novel’s most captivating passages, navigates memories of her difficult childhood, she also starts to realize that Cliff might be different, and that unlike Freeda, her life might actually still turn around. A final reunion scene that seems all too quick and easy, given the pages of struggle, also shows Neena how family, especially Nan, can still be a part of this new life.
A vibrant, perfectly drawn setting and natural dialogue save an otherwise unremarkable story.