In a lot of recent novels about cross-cultural/racial adoption and other very similar/adjacent topics, there’s been some good novels that have rough edges and underdevelopment of characters.
What often happens in these novels is that the well-meaning white people (usually white lady) gets in over her head or over simplifies the world or is naive and destructive. I know that plenty of white people are like this and do these things, so I won’t set out to defend them or anything like that. But a lot of these novels fail to see that to write convincing characters, even if their actions seem simplistic, you actually have to create complexity.
Even the simplest person is infinitely complex internally. Even someone who chooses an almost scripted reaction to everything they see.
So in this novel, while there is almost nothing but cultural misinterpretation and miscommunication, there’s actually well-developed and complex characters at the heart of it. In addition, the miscommunication and misinterpretation, while sometimes stemming from naive racial interaction, happens across multiple lines and for multiple reasons.
In the novel, Ginger and Paul sign up for a “Fresh Air” program wherein they welcome a Dominican girl named Velvet into their home for a weeks in the summer as a way to get her out of the city and into the country (Duchess County,NY) while she’s there, she becomes obsessed with a nearby horse stables, a particular mare named “Fugly Girl” or “Fiery Girl.” As the summer wanes, Ginger now wants to latch onto Velvet and maintain a relationship, much to the concern of Paul and reticence of Velvet’s mother Celia
As the novel progress, Ginger’s affection for Velvet, Velvet’s own complicated interaction with the world, Celia’s wariness, and Paul’s own views all intermingle and interact in various ways with various narrations. I state it in this overly vague way, because while there is a plot, so much of the novel is just Velvet’s growth into a teenager, and the various ways of seeing this through the eyes of the characters.
The novel is told from these multiple perspectives with Ginger and Velvet dominating, but with a few important and incisive additions from Celia and Paul, along with a few others.
No one is good, and no one is bad, and everyone has flaws. The miscommunication and the inability to fully understand the other people in our lives is read through multiple lenses: marriages, mother-daughter, language/cultural barriers, age, and various others. The defining factor though all of this is the gaps of knowing and understanding. Even Velvet’s connection to her horses is read in this same manner. So the effect in the novel is how different events and intentions are read in slightly different ways, but also how what seems so very important to one person doesn’t always even show up in the view of the others.
It is not very much like As I Lay Dying but there is a parallel in form. How the different voices do not mesh up to create a cohesive narrative, but instead work as an imperfect symphony to create the novel.
If you’ve read other Mary Gaitskill, you’ll know that much of writing is severe and brutal, and at times this is too, capturing some truly awful parts of the characters’ lives, but it’s honest and direct about them too.