A liberal white professor contends with racial politics following her son’s terrible mistake in this literary novel.
Former student radical Bettina Grosjean, now a professor of women’s history, is generally quite pleased with her life on New York’s Upper West Side. Sure, her aging mother, a Holocaust survivor, has taken to hiding in her closet, and there’s some “ugliness” with husband Stephen given his increasing cynicism in his work as director of environmental affairs at City Hall. But she is proud of her bond with Viola Nightingale, a black woman originally from Georgia with whom she built the “Special Enrichment Program” at the school attended by Bettina’s son Zack, 13, and Viola’s son Cyrus, who, like their mothers, are best friends. “By the time of that fateful October day,” Bettina recalls, “we’d morphed into one beautiful rainbow-colored family.” Then Bettina’s bubble bursts: she, Stephen, and their younger daughter, Hallie, arrive home from a weekend jaunt to Vermont to discover that Zack, after returning from a school trip to D.C., is being questioned by police regarding a pushing incident that put Cyrus in a coma. A benumbed Viola retreats into grief, while Marcus Hake, “the city’s most powerful black leader” and whom Bettina “secretly admired for years,” makes hay out of the situation, ultimately landing Zack in juvenile detention. Only some crafty maneuvering can save the day. In this sophomore effort, Pashman (The Speed of Light, 1997) places a relatable, recognizable woman into the compelling cross hairs of America’s enduring racial tensions. Zack’s observations of racial realities and the simmering resentments expressed by some of the parents about the enrichment program are some of the saddest, most striking sequences of this book. Bettina’s mother is a somewhat distracting side note to these proceedings, however, and this novel’s ending feels like a bit too easy. Overall, however, Pashman has raised many issues here that ring true.
A fascinating, cleareyed consideration of racial relations among close friends.