Monday, April 27, 2009

Babylon Sisters by Pearl Cleage

I wanted to go see the recent St. Louis Black Rep production  of Song for Coretta but I never got my act together to buy tickets. But a woman in one of my reading groups did see it and enjoyed it enough to recommend that we try reading one of playwright Pearl Cleage's novels.  We chose Babylon Sisters.

I wanted to like it, I really did.  Through the first few chapters I thought that I would.  Cleage tells the story of single mother Catherine Sanderson, an upper middle class professional black woman living in Atlanta.  Catherine got pregnant in college and chose to keep her baby, but never told the father of the child who assumed that Catherine had the abortion she told him she was going to have.  Catherine has never revealed the name of the father of her child to anyone except to one person - her best friend Louis.  But now Catherine's daughter is pressing to know who he is and Catherine doesn't know if she wants to reveal it. 

This is a great theme and I really thought Cleage could go with it and write a great novel.  There are so many things to think about with a plot like that:  pregnancy, choice, truthfulness, mother-daughter relationships, single parenthood, expectations of past lovers, working for oneself vs. working for someone else. 

But ... then it got away from her and it veered off into an plot line about an investigation into an immigrant sex slave ring.  Really.  I won't even explain how the plot got there.  The ending was so unbelievable as to be laughable as Catherine, her daughter and the father of her child put the bad guys in jail. 

Why she decided to go this way with the novel I have no idea.  But I didn't like it. And because she veered off into this absurd plot line she didn't spend the time I thought she should have on the basic human story of her daughter and the missing father - in fact she put in plot twists that I considered cheating.  I wondered if Cleage had just seen Mama Mia when she sat down to write this novel because the first part of the novel had a lot in common with the plot of Mama Mia.  The daughter wants to know who her father is and sends letters off to all the guys that her mother has told her she was with at the time she got pregnant.  But, unlike Mama Mia, it turns out the mother lied to the daughter and didn't sleep with any of those men (many of whom are surprised to get a letter asking if they will undergo a DNA test).  

Then at about page 100, when the author needs to move us into part two, the phone rings and guess who it is?  The father.  He just happens to be coming to town, calling after seventeen years of silence.  I was disappointed by this twist.  I would much rather have had Catherine have to make the decision whether or not to contact this man than to have "fate" send him to her.  I don't really like passive heroines.

And when Catherine must decide whether or not to tell him about the child he doesn't know exists - Cleage takes the moment away from her and has him learn about it "offstage" from a peripheral character.

A really disappointing read.