In Power’s drama (Being White: A Memoir, 2012), a black woman starts a relationship with a rich white man, who may help her and her family have a better life.
Linda Alger, working as a nursing home orderly, hopes to earn a nursing degree so that she and her 7-year-old son, Vardaman, can move out of the projects. But a chance encounter with the wealthy Alexander Aspen, the son of one of the patients, ignites romance—and the possibility of a new place to live. Their relationship, however, is far from easy. It’s complicated by people’s perceptions of them; two thugs set on getting some of Alexander’s money; and the looming trial of Donnyell, a neighbor wrongly accused of pushing Vardaman down an elevator shaft. The novel subtly examines racism. Prejudice is less overt than in the 1950s and ’60s but still there in the story’s 1989 setting; e.g., Linda’s cruel supervisor complains to a nurse about disciplining “them,” clearly referring to African-Americans. Linda and Alexander share compelling similarities (both are lost souls) as well as differences: Linda evidently thinks that money will solve everything, like getting Vardaman into an expensive school, while Alexander strives for a “simpler life.” Taken as a whole, the plot is clear-cut and unassailable: One event—Vardaman letting authorities believe that Donnyell is responsible for his elevator accident—powerfully affects the lives of those around the little boy. But it’s difficult not to see two distinct stories, one from Vardaman’s point of view and the other a contemporary spin on Romeo and Juliet. Both Linda and Alexander often come across as unsympathetic or disengaged. He’s nonresponsive about his apparent debt; she’s prone to expressing anger with a plate of hot spaghetti, but it’s a gloriously complex relationship that readers will find impossible to pass over.
A thoughtful exploration of racism and the multifaceted characters are the biggest draws in this rigorous family melodrama.