A master at portraying the hurdles faced by upwardly mobile African-Americans, Southgate (Third Girl from the Left, 2005, etc.) focuses her third novel on a marine biologist trying to escape her heritage.
Growing up in black working-class Cleveland, Josie and her younger brother Tick were raised to excel by their parents, a nurse and a factory worker with a highly sophisticated love of literature. Both kids received scholarships to attend private school, but by the time Josie began to study marine biology at Stanford, her father’s quiet alcoholism had destroyed her parents’ marriage. Although he’s been sober for years, Josie has never forgiven him. Now in her late 30s, she is wrapped up in her seemingly perfect life researching marine mammals at Woods Hole, where she lives with her gentle, loving scientist husband Daniel. When her mother asks her to return briefly to Cleveland to bring Tick home from the rehab center where he’s been in treatment, Josie obliges. But she avoids becoming involved in her brother’s recovery. Despite a dream job as a trainer for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tick fell prey to alcohol and cocaine addiction. His wife has given up and left him, but now that he’s clean again, the Cavaliers offer him a second chance. He moves in with his mother and begins to attend AA meetings. Back in Massachusetts, Josie walls herself off from her feelings for Tick and her parents, and also Daniel, who can’t help being white or loving Josie more than she allows herself to love him. Instead she falls into an affair with newly arrived researcher Ben, who happens to be the only other African-American at the lab. Then Tick turns up at her doorstep in desperate need. Declaring the novel is Josie’s narration, Southgate uses some creaky machinations to allow other points of view.
Thoughtful if small in scale, the drama’s ambivalences and ambiguities remain almost too low-key to build readers’ interest before the tragic if unsurprising climax.