A family must face their origins after disaster strikes in Matthews’ debut novel.
The Vandenholms live a charmed life in New York City, seemingly unscathed by the Great Depression ravaging countless families. But when Peter Vandenholm winds up in a coma, his wife, Celeste, discovers that their family fortune has almost vanished. She must soon sell their mansion; call her teenage son, David, back from private school; and let go of the nurse caring for her mentally disabled daughter, Martina. After a wealthy man attacks Martina, a desperate Celeste pulls up stakes from their tenement apartment and moves the family to rural Sculley’s Bend, Virginia. In Sculley’s Bend, David learns his mother’s shocking secret: while light-skinned enough to pass as Caucasian, Celeste is in fact the youngest daughter of a poor African-American family. As Celeste (born Carol Ann) reconnects with her father, sister, and the black community she fled as a young woman, David struggles with anger and resentment about his mother’s deception. He also bridles at being perceived by his new community not as a privileged white academic, but a poor black orchard worker. David’s refusal to think of himself as anything but white, his flirtations with a bored white woman, and the brutal punishment promised to any black man who “acts white” visit danger on the entire Sculley’s Bend community. The book’s New York half flirts with melodrama: characters often struggle not to faint or vomit as they cope with a string of disasters, and Martina’s attack is too familiar a Victorian trope to be shocking. Tone improves with the move to Sculley’s Bend; dramatic reactions are replaced with internal struggles, and the family’s problems unfurl more realistically. David and Celeste are complete creations—David’s occasionally repugnant sense of entitlement is softened by his vulnerable age and upended identity, and Celeste’s erasure of her past is contextualized. There seems like far more to unpack for these characters in Sculley’s Bend than in New York, which makes the ending feel slightly rushed.
Sentimental but still tells a forceful story about racial identity.