Verdict: Well written but forgettable.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Published by W&N, 2020
An unexpected teenage pregnancy pulls together two families from different social classes, and exposes the private hopes, disappointments, and longings that can bind or divide us from each other.
Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson’s taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.
As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody’s mother, for her own ceremony—a celebration that ultimately never took place.
Unfurling the history of Melody’s parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they’ve paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives—even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.
While I can see that this is objectively a well-written book and I did really enjoy the structure, I also had trouble remembering what happened even in the chapter before and I cannot imagine this sticking with me. This review is taking me forever to write because I just do not know what to say.
Told in vignettes (something I love!), going forward and backwards in time telling the story of one particular family, this book mostly was a joy to read. Woodson’s prose is wonderful and the way in which she constructs her characters really worked for me. What I especially appreciated was the warmth with which she writes about these characters while still allowing them to be flawed. On a longlist including very many books that have a very cynical worldview and that are populated by horrible people doing horrible things for no reason, this really worked for me.
But the characters did not stick with me at all and I never got emotionally invested in their trajectory. While this does not take away from how good this book is, it did mean that it took me a lot longer than it should have to finish this very short book. I also thought the first half was a lot more successful than the second half and I could have done without the “remembering my own birth”-scene, which is just something I am very rarely on board with.
I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:
- Actress by Anne Enright (review)
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
- Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
- A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
- Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie (review)
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (review)
Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel