The friendship between two black teenage girls in Kentucky flags when one of them moves to Harlem in this low-energy first novel.
In the 1950s, the small town of Mt. Sterling is strictly segregated. Audrey and Caroline are neighbors in the “colored” section. Audrey is only 11 when her beloved father, Lindell, enlists in the Air Force and dies his very first day in Korea (friendly fire). The shock drives her mother to drink; she works two jobs and is seldom home. Caroline’s situation is far worse. For starters, she’s plug ugly, inheriting unwelcome features from the white man who raped her grandmother. The horror comes when her mother disappears; she has been murdered and dismembered by her husband, known as Sonnyboy. He confesses but never explains why he killed his meek, faithful wife; Townsend’s awkward handling of the episode is a tear in the fabric. Caroline refuses to speak to her father again (incredibly, he only does five years jail time) but moves right along: “Ain’t like some big thing happened.” She’s first to snag a boyfriend, putting distance between the two friends. Audrey’s ace in the hole is her skill as a pianist. Mr. Glaser, a talent scout from the world-famous Apollo, hears her playing at a funeral and insists she come to New York. This is Audrey’s big moment—joining the Apollo house band at 17 and living in Harlem—but Townsend can’t make it shine, even when the bassist, August, 11 years her senior, falls for her big time. There will be rough sledding ahead for the lovebirds and for the two childhood friends; it's Sonnyboy that has the smooth ride.
Townsend has attempted a big-canvas novel, but it's only in the close-knit Mt. Sterling neighborhood that she seems at home.