Dorothy West didn’t write that much fiction all told. But she was forever involved in publishing, editing, and other fields related to writing. In the mid-1990s she published her first new novel in a few decades The Wedding which won acclaim because it’s good, because Oprah took notice, and because it was her first novel in a few decades.
This novel came out in the late 1940s and it shares an obvious connection to another novel from that time The Street by Ann Petry. They have some parallels. Both novels are written by educated Black women (in an era where that was not the norm); both look at city life in the North for Black women, and both start with a Black woman looking for a new place to live. Whereas Ann Petry’s novel has a darker tone and is about the complications of poverty and single motherhood, this novel has a much lighter tone, somewhat loftier goals for the protagonist, and not necessarily the most sympathetic ends for her either.
Similar to scenes from Native Son where liberal whites try to give African-Americans a chance (laden with unfair expectation and a nefarious racist mission) this novel begins with a rich white man offering his nice house to Cleo for much less than it’s worth to rent. While he plays at altruism, it’s clear to both the reader and to Cleo that he just doesn’t want to be associated with the changing complexion of the neighborhood. Offered an exceedingly good deal, she haggles. That sets the tone for the novel: in the face of disingenuous white generosity, she bites back and takes what she can. For example, her next steps are to bring in as many boarders as possible to make her already good deal that much sweeter.
From there the novel involves Cleo convincing her sisters to move back in with her and then goes through a series of different mishaps, plots, and events. There’s not a strong throughline of plot in this novel, other than the themes of family connection, race, and womanhood.
It’s an interesting novel that I enjoyed for the most part, though it definitely became a bit of a chore to finish.