In Stevens’ (Sirens’ Songs, 2011, etc.) intelligent novel, the civil-rights March on Washington ignites one woman’s journey to heartbreak and self-awareness.
It’s August 27, 1963, and Cynthia, a white, divorced researcher for a New York history-book publisher, gets off the bus in Washington, D.C., eager to spend her two-week vacation with her boyfriend, Lester. But Cynthia is surrounded by people arriving for another reason: the March on Washington, scheduled for the following day, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and others would speak to hundreds of thousands. The city is restless; when Cynthia arrives at Lester’s house, the moment is disrupted by a neighbor calling in a false fire alarm. Lester, a white journalist originally from Texas, is focused on the March; all Cynthia wants to talk about is getting married. Soon after Cynthia arrives, Lester’s college roommate calls to announce that he’s in town and demands to see Lester. Throw in the general tumult of Lester’s African-American neighborhood on the eve of the March, and Cynthia’s fantasies of a romantic vacation don’t stand a chance. Before Lester leaves to work on a story, he and Cynthia schedule a late-night drink with Lester’s roommate. Over the next 24 hours, Cynthia participates in the March on Washington, witnesses life-changing events, and confronts her own painful memories. Stevens’ tightly structured tale is filled with compelling observations: For example, when Cynthia gets off the bus, the driver’s eyes slide down her body, “exploring the folds of [her] skirt like a sticky finger.” The novel confines the story to two days, which allows the characters to move quickly through the narrative, but it includes too many subplots for such a short time span. Although Cynthia tells her story in the first person, we learn more about Lester, and Cynthia’s first husband, Frank, than we do about Cynthia herself. This choice highlights Cynthia’s willingness to sacrifice everything for love, but readers may wish that the protagonist were more clearly drawn.
An engaging, if uneven, novel about personal upheaval during a time of monumental social change.