Review: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

43697186Verdict: Well written but forgettable.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by W&N, 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

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:

  1. Actress by Anne Enright (review)
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
  4. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)
  5. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
  6. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie (review)
  7. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (review)

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

12 thoughts on “Review: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

  1. I’ve literally just finished this and I honestly don’t know what the point of it was. The prose is competent, but I found the twist at the end bizarre – it felt like it was visiting from a different novel!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great review! I’m currently reading this one (wanted something short and concise after reading The Most Fun We Ever Had), and agree that Woodson does a great job of portraying flawed characters in a compassionate way. I’ll try to reserve judgment about the second half of the book until I get to it, but this is a pretty encouraging review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really did for enjoy it for the most part! It just didn’t stick with me very well. And I was very glad for her to be so kind about her characters because I find many of these longlisted books are not.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review, I had a bit different experience but have ended up feeling very similarly about this one in the end! I managed to read it in one sitting (it was my first longlist read so the excitement was still fresh) which helped initially, but it really has not stuck with me over the last month.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s