The volatile relationship between a fortysomething Houston matron and the racially mixed daughter who hesitantly reenters her life is central to Brown's intelligent, affecting, if occasionally slow-moving fifth novel (and first since Before and After, 1992).
Miriam Starobin's embattled tenure as an idealistic teacher of history in Mississippi in the late 1960s climaxed when she gave birth to Veronica, fathered by Miriam's black colleague Eljay Reece, a militant music scholar who then contrived to keep the baby and drive Miriam away. Seventeen years later, when Miriam's comfortable marriage (to prosperous ophthalmologist Barry Vener) and motherhood (of their three children) begin to chafe against her half-guilty memories of Mississippi, `Ronnee`—now college-bound, and brimful of barely contained anger toward both the unsupportive Eljay and the unknown mother who `abandoned` her—arrives for a tense reunion, first at the Veners' New Hampshire summer property, then back in Houston, where Miriam's hopes that she can make her `other daughter` belong are cruelly tested. Brown handles this potentially preachy material better that almost anyone else writing today. Her style is a carefully judged blending of almost reportorial flatness with vividly rendered (restrained and overflowing) emotion, graced by frequent flashes of perceptive metaphor (Ronnee experiences everyday racism `like a chronic low-grade illness that sometimes flared up`; the charismatic Eljay basks in the `admiration of everyone . . . especially the women . . . [which] circled him like a string of little flashing lights`). Brown's scrupulous analyses of both her protagonists' believably crowded and confused emotions is impressively alert to the subtlest gradations of feeling, thought, and principle, and she makes us believe that all her people are tightly focused, exhausted decent people doing their fallible best to comprehend one another's `worlds.`
Half a Heart is anything but half-hearted. We feel we can trust Brown's integrity and compassion; that's why her fiction, even when (as here) it's intermittently redundant and overexplicit, never fails to grip us.