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“Pearl Cleage’s wonderful new novel, Babylon Sisters, shows a writer at the top of her game, managing to weave together the eternal dance of mothers and daughters, a timeless love story, rich friendships, and international politics into a fast-paced Atlanta saga with an unforgettable villain and a thrilling climax that leave us cheering. Pearl has once again given us a book filled with folks who are so real, we think we know them, or wish we did.”
–e. lynn harris, author of Since I Lost My Baby
“Babylon Sisters’ funny, feminine, fabulous voice sings a story of history, family, love and redemption. Cleage’s ability to make the personal political and the political personal triumphs once again! Nestled in this beautifully written ode to love–of child, friends, men, and self –is a call to political activism and empowerment.”
–Jill Nelson, author of Sexual Healing
“You’ll love this savvy love story in which Pearl Cleage returns to Atlanta and the West End community and nails it! Cleage knows her city. She knows her community. She knows her people. Pearl Cleage knows her stuff!”
–Tina McElroy Ansa, author of You Know Better and The Hand I Fan With
“Babylon Sisters is a delectable feast! Pearl Cleage’s people are my people. Their world of problems is complex and radiant, covering a wide spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. Cleage writes with the intelligence of a master storyteller and her underlying humor keeps our spirits high. Like flower petals swept into the sky by a warm wind, Babylon Sisters carried me away from all worries, reminding me that great writing changes your life.”
–Deborah Santana, author of Space Between the Stars
“Cleage writes with amazing grace and killer instinct.”
–The New York Times
From the Hardcover edition.
He was never the one. He was handsome and interesting and sexy and as serious as she was about saving the world by next Tuesday at the very latest. He was also way too full of the blazing sexual energy of his emerging manhood to be anybody’s one for very long. But at seventeen, how was she supposed to know? She handed him her heart, and everything else that wasn’t tied down, and they were inseparable from October of her junior year until June, when they had to go their separate ways for the summer. She was determined not to let distance destroy their relationship, but once they were apart he seemed to be drifting away from her, and neither one knew what to do about it. After a summer of long-distance spats and tearful reconciliations, he confessed via a long e-mail that he had fallen in love with someone else and closed with a wish that they could always be friends.
That was three days ago, and I’m still sympathetic. I am her mother, after all, and I do love my child. But it was time for her to dry her eyes and blow her nose and get herself together. Nobody ever really dies of a broken heart except in the movies, and it is my opinion, motherhood aside, that more than three days in mourning for the demise of a relationship with any man is unseemly, not to mention a real strain on the women who have to help you through it. It was time for her to segue from self-pity to self-examination by asking the all-important question: What is the lesson here for me? Although it is deceptively simple, this question cuts to the heart of the matter because it turns that trembling, accusatory finger you’re pointing at everybody else right back around to yourself. My darling daughter had spent enough time blaming her boyfriend. Now it was time for her to look at what she could have done differently to avoid this painful moment.
When she was younger, I would consider the lesson question with her so she’d begin to understand how it always leads to the heart of the matter. When she got older, I would just remind her to ask it, then leave her to think about the answer all by herself. That’s what I intended to do tonight. She could review and evaluate her choices while she finished packing and I finished returning three days’ worth of phone calls. I love having my office at home, and since Phoebe went off to boarding school two years ago, it’s been not only convenient, but quiet, the last seventy-two drama-filled hours notwithstanding.
I’d better enjoy it while I can. Phoebe’s going to college next year. She’s got her heart set on Smith, and the Seven Sisters have never been a place for bohemian mothers living on a budget to send their darling daughters. It looks like after all these years of stretching my little inheritance and living by my wits, I’m actually going to have to break down and get a full-time job where somebody else signs the check and covers the health insurance. I’m going to try to keep some of my longtime clients. Most of them can’t afford to hire anybody half as good as I am, and they’ve never needed me more.
What I do is coordinate and integrate services for programs assisting female refugees and immigrants. Atlanta is a magnet for people trying to make a new start in a new country, and even though the town’s natives still think in terms of black and white, in reality we’re looking more and more like the Rainbow Coalition. My job is to ease the transition on all sides by serving as a kind of conduit, clearinghouse, counselor, and all-around communications facilitator.
I tell people the language I speak is the future, and I love it. All you have to do is help a Cambodian family find safe housing or a Haitian mother register her children for school or reunite a Cuban father with a son he thought he’d never see again or attend a Liberian wedding party to know that there isn’t nearly as much difference between people as some of our governments and institutions want us to think there is. In my line of work, what I’ve learned is that most people are looking for pretty much the same things—health and peace and love and family and a community where you can wave at your neighbors and they wave back.
I love what I do, but it doesn’t pay very well. My parents left me this house, all paid for, and enough money so that I could stay home with Phoebe and not have to worry about the basics. When my volunteer work at the Red Cross turned into a lot of freelance consulting, I was able to make enough to finance our annual trips to somewhere we’d never been before and to send Phoebe to a private boarding school up north when she decided she wanted to go.
But the last of my inheritance paid for her senior-year tuition, and there’s not enough coming in to keep us afloat and to finance four years of college. She keeps offering to get a job, but our deal has always been, You get the grades and I’ll get the money. Besides, it’s only four years. I can stand almost any job that long if it pays well enough. After that, Phoebe’s on her own, and I can feather my empty nest any way I want. Until then, I’ve got to toughen this girl up and get her back to school.
I brewed a fresh pot of coffee and poured us each a cup to signal that the tea-sipping phase of her healing was officially over, then went upstairs to tap on her half-open door.
From inside the silent, darkened room my daughter’s voice was a pain-filled quaver. “Come in, Mom.”
I pushed open the door with my foot. Once inside, I could see that there was one small candle burning on the bedside table. The air was faintly perfumed with the roses Amelia brought over yesterday when she came to check on the progress of the patient. Amelia Douglass has known Phoebe since we all still called her Baby Doll and is more like a favorite aunt than a next-door neighbor. Phoebe herself was curled up in the center of the bed under a wool blanket her grandmother brought back from South America years ago and which is so smotheringly heavy that we use it only on those rare occasions when the furnace goes out in one of those freak Atlanta ice storms and we want to stay cozy until Georgia Power gets around to reconnecting our block.
But there was no ice storm. It was, in fact, the end of August, and the temperature outside at nine thirty at night was still eighty-five degrees. I suppressed a smile. Baby Doll was playing this scene to the hilt. The candle flickering over her sweet little face was the perfect theatrical touch. Right out of Camille. My child intends to major in performance studies. Looking at the scene she’s constructed here, I know she’ll make the dean’s list.
“I brought you some coffee,” I said casually, like she’s always in bed with the lights out at nine thirty on a Friday night.
She sat up slowly and reached out to clutch the cup I was offering. Consistent with her cold-weather motif, she wrapped both hands around it and breathed deeply, as if we were huddled in a tent at the foot of Mount Everest.
That quaver in her voice sounded so genuinely sad, I was tempted to sit down on the edge of the bed and spend another hour or two cooing and comforting. I know that’s what she wanted, but part of being a good mother is knowing when to exercise some tough love, even in a raw moment like this one.
“Can I turn the light on?” I said. “I can’t hardly see you.”
“I look a mess,” she said, running her hand over her hair, cut short and curly. The flickering candle threw her shadow on the wall dramatically. The award for best lighting design goes to . . .
“You can’t look a mess to your mother,” I said, turning on the lamp. “It’s against the law.”
She managed a shaky smile, but she was right. She looked a mess. Not a terminal mess. Just an I haven’t had a shower or brushed my hair or changed my clothes in three days because I’ve been too busy crying mess. Her suitcases were open at the foot of the bed, but her clothes were strewn around like she’d closed her eyes and thrown them in the air to see where they would land.
“I see you’ve started packing,” I said, taking a seat at the foot of the bed. She was propped up now against a nest of pillows, the two-ton blanket still draped over her knees. She gazed around at the colorful piles of her back-to-school clothes like she was seeing them for the first time.
“I was trying to get it organized,” she said. “But . . .” Her voice trailed off like no further explanation was necessary since I was clearly familiar with her situation.
“So you want some help?” I said. “You know you’re not going to want to tackle all this tomorrow.”
She took another sip of her coffee, put it down slowly on the table near the candle, and sighed deeply.
“There’s something I have to tell you, and you’re not going to like it.”
This is not a sentence the mother of a seventeen-year-old girl in the middle of a marathon crying jag wants to hear. Trust me. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly depressing. I willed myself to remain calm and not jump to conclusions.
“What is it, sweetie?”
She just looked at me while a big fat tear rolled down her cheek. She dabbed at it with a soggy tissue that had seen better days. Please tell me this girl isn’t—
I interrupted that thought before my brain could finish it. “What’s wrong, Phoebe?”
“I haven’t finished packing because I’m not going back to school,” she said, her voice a mixture of misery and defiance.
“Not going back to school?” I said, not sure whether I was more surprised or relieved. This was a fantasy, not a problem. “Why?”
It was a rhetorical question. There was no possible answer that would result in my agreeing to such a move. Phoebe was a straight-A student at Fairfield Academy. This was her senior year, and she was practically guaranteed admission to any school where she applied. This was no time to take a break.
“It’s just too painful,” she said with a delicate shudder. “I’ll have to see him practically every day. Everybody will know he broke up with me for . . . her.”
Phoebe’s voice cracked on the word, and she tried to collect herself. I didn’t rush the moment. I wanted her to get it all out before I inquired as to whether she had lost her whole mind. In a nice way, of course.
“I just don’t think I could stand it,” she said. “You understand, don’t you, Mom?”
I chose my words carefully. I was a modern mother and I wanted to be compassionate, but absolutely clear in what I was saying.
I patted her knee through the rough wool. “I understand that at this moment, it may seem like the whole world has fallen in on you,” I said calmly. “But hiding at home is not the way to get through this. Sooner or later you’ll have to go back to school, and the longer you wait, the harder it will be.”
“Why do I have to go back at all? You homeschooled me when I was little. Why can’t we do it again?”
“Because I can’t teach you calculus,” I teased her gently.
She was not amused. “I’ve already had calculus.”
“Listen, sweetie,” I said. “I know you loved him, and I know it’s hard to face your friends, but dropping out of school your senior year isn’t an option. It doesn’t make sense.”
From the Hardcover edition.
1. “Even then, before I had a clue about how hard it is to actually raise a sane and loving child in a brutally insane, often unlovely world, I knew that was my goal. I wanted to be a good hands-on mother. A rocker was the ﬁrst step, and I sat in twelve chairs before I found the right one.” (p. 17) Catherine wanted to be “a good hands-on mother” so she bought a rocking chair. What did the rocking chair represent for Catherine? Do you think growing up with an unconventional mother and father made her want to embrace the more traditional motherhood symbols even as she herself set out on an equally unconventional path?
2. “There is a theory,” she said, slowly, “that women’s romantic relationships with men are totally shaped by their fathers. If it’s a bad relationship, those women will seek out men who are like the father over and over in order to see if they can resolve issues that began in early childhood.” (p. 18) Do you think there’s any truth to this theory? If so, is there anything women with less than positive relationships with their fathers can do to break the cycle?
3. Do you think it was fair for Catherine not to tell B.J. when she decided not to have an abortion? What other ways could she have approached her decision making that might have been better or did she pick the best course of action?
4. “I pretended that was ﬁne with me because I knew his freedom was as important to him as his work, and the idea that he would sacriﬁce or even modify either one because we happened to fall in love never entered his mind.” (p. 20) Catherine admits that she pretended she didn’t mind the separation that was looming after she and B.J. ﬁnished college and began to pursue their individual careers. Why do you think she felt the need to pretend rather than share her real feelings with B.J.? Do you think this is a familiar pattern in many romantic relationships and how does it effect their ultimate outcome?
5. “My generation is still struggling to ﬁnd the balance between love and freedom, sex and romance, family and career. Sometimes we get it right, but more often, we don’t.” (p. 21) How do you feel about Catherine’s observation that her generation is “still struggling” with these important questions? Is this struggle a challenge in your own life? How do you think women address these questions in their daily lives, personally and professionally?
6. “As my mother told me once when I was quoting Gloria Steinem as the ultimate authority on all things feminist, ‘What you have to understand is that colored women weren’t involved in the women’s movement. We were the women who moved!’” (p. 21) What do you think Catherine’s mother meant by that? Do you feel that the women’s movement changed the lives of American women? Were those changes positive or negative?
7. “This is what I get for sending her to private school with a bunch of rich white girls. From what Phoebe says, they talk to their mothers any kind of way, and their mamas let them, but this conversation was over. I stood up.” (p. 23) Catherine takes pride in Phoebe’s scholastic achievements, but has some ambivalence about her interaction with white female students at Northﬁeld Academy. Do you think African American women relate to their daughters differently than other mothers?
8. “A lie is never the best you can do, even when you tell yourself it is. It’s a way of buying some breathing room until you can work up enough courage to tell the truth.” (p. 24) The necessity to tell the truth even when it’s difﬁcult runs through this book. Characters are encouraged to tell the truth and rewarded when they do so. Do you think lying is ever justiﬁed between people who say they love each other? Under what circumstances would you lie to a friend or loved one?
9. This is the second novel Pearl has set in Atlanta’s West End community. Admittedly idealizing the neighborhood she loves, she has said “I write about my neighborhood, but better.” What do you think she means by this? What do you think about the role played by Blue Hamilton in the neighborhood? Do you think you could call him a friend the way Catherine says she is proud to do?
10. “Louis had limitless patience for Phoebe’s dramas, major and minor. I probably wouldn’t have survived her adolescence without him, and tonight he was just the port in a storm she needed.” (p. 30) Catherine is determined to provide Phoebe with an extended surrogate family, even if she won’t tell her about her father. How important is the role Louis plays in Phoebe and Catherine’s lives? How successful is Catherine in her effort to make a family for her daughter?
11. “She probably wasn’t much taller than I was, but it wasn’t about height. There was a real presence, an almost palpable strength, rolling off her in waves. I couldn’t imagine trying to tell her no.” (p. 44) Ezola Mandeville is a complicated woman who intrigues Catherine and sometimes infuriates her. What was your initial impression of Miss Mandeville? When she “tests” Catherine by casually using the phrase “sorry black bitches,” how did you react to her words? Did her explanation change your impression?
12. “The history of black female activism is littered with tired feet, sore backs, one too many demands from the mistress or master of the house, one too many off days canceled at the last minute, one too many boxes of old clothes instead of a raise in pay.” (p. 47) How do you feel about Catherine’s observations about black female activism? Is this still true today or have things that make African American women activists changed as professional opportunities expand? What does it mean to be an activist? Would you use the term to describe yourself?
13. “And that,” she said, “is what all this is about. Bearing witness for Bessie by looking out for all the hardworking colored women people never even see. That’s why I do what I do, and if you decide to come and work for me, that’s what you’ll be doing, too.” (p. 50) Richard Wright’s classic novel, Native Son, was the catalyst that helped Ezola ﬁnd her life’s work, “bearing witness for Bessie.” How did you feel about her analysis of Wright’s book? Do you think the African American male characters in ﬁction are held accountable for their behavior toward African American women? What do you think about the issue of “male bashing?” Is it relevant to discussions of ﬁction written by African American women writers?
14. “Why don’t you go down to the pool and leave the people’s revolution to the people?” (p. 50) How do you think Catherine’s father’s feelings about social change affected her choice to devote her life to helping immigrants and refugee women and children? Did your parents’ way of looking at the world directly inﬂuence your choices, personal or professional?
15. Listening to a discussion of American Idol winner Ruben Studdard on black talk radio, Catherine considers the role race plays in the African American community and wishes the level of exchange could be updated to include all the progress of the last forty years. What do you think about her wish that we had a “bigger world view”? Is race still as important a consideration as it was in the 1960s? Has anything changed, for better or for worse?
16. “The Sentinel was a losing proposition economically, but for Louis it was both a legacy and a labor of love. Imagining Louis without the Sentinel was like imagining Louis without his lopsided grin. Impossible.” (p. 56) Louis Adams’s father, Louis, Sr., founded the paper in l964 to “tell the truth to the people.” Is that truth telling still the primary mission of the black press? Do you think that role should change or is it still important to the African American community? What do you think Louis would think about the programming on BET?
17. Catherine’s attempts to meet single men after B.J. was out of her life are one disaster after another. (p. 59). Do you think the men she dated were as bad as she remembers them or that a part of her was still waiting for B.J. to return?
18. Women of various ages forge friendships in this book, including Miss Iona and Miriam, Amelia and Phoebe, and the members of the Babylon Sisters Book Club. Why do you think Pearl included these cross generational friendships? Do you have regular contact with women older and younger than you are? Do you think such relationships are important?
19. Louis and Catherine have been friends since birth. How hard is it to maintain a friendship with a man when there is no romance involved? Do you think Louis is a good friend to B.J.? Should he have told him about Phoebe? How difﬁcult is it to keep a friend’s secrets when those secrets may be hurting another friend?
20. What questions does the book raise about the responsibility of mothers and fathers to work out their differences amicably for the sake of their children? Is it always possible to do this?
21. B.J. was delighted to learn that he had a daughter and confesses he never wanted Catherine to have an abortion. Do you think their relationship would have been different if he had been able to tell her this? Did his reaction to hearing about Phoebe surprise you?
22. Miriam’s story of leaving Haiti at night with a group of other terriﬁed refugees is one Catherine has heard before in her work. Was Miriam’s story familiar to you? (p. 88—89). Can you picture yourself in the role of Miriam’s mother? Do you think she made the best choice for her children in spite of the danger she placed them in? Is it a choice you could have made?
23. Did the book’s emphasis on mothers and daughters around the world make you think about all the at-risk women and children struggling with war and famine and political upheaval in their home countries? Pearl has said she thinks it is important for women to “think of everybody’s children as our children.” How can this thought be translated into reality?
24. Amelia says she fell in love with Louis after taking him to a Sweet Honey concert. (p. 101). She loved his ability to be surrounded by so much female energy and not become uncomfortable. Have you ever had this kind of sisterhood experience? Were the men present able to enjoy it? What did their behavior tell you about them?
25. When Sam Hall tells Catherine that the educational program Busy Boy Baker has committed to is a public relations ploy more than anything else, she’s surprised at his cynicism. When he later tells her why he is so cynical (p. 132), did it make you feel differently about him? What do you think of his characterization of the poor people who wrecked his rental property as “niggers”? Is it more or less offensive for African Americans to use this term than for other groups to use it?
26. When Catherine and B.J. meet for dinner, she is determined not to allow him to direct their conversation to the past. (p. 151) Did she overreact by walking out when he kept trying to apologize and explain?
27. Catherine is able to think of herself as a “citizen of the world.” Do you think of yourself that way? Is it desirable or just distracting, considering the number of challenges we face right here at home?
28. Do you think Catherine and the girls could have come up with a plan to save themselves if B.J., Louis, and the police had not arrived? Why do you think the author stages a rescue before they have time to do something on their own?
29. How does it challenge our ideas of sisterhood to encounter a villain like Ezola Mandeville? What would your reaction be if you met someone like Ezola in life? Do you think it would take longer for you to suspect her motives because she is an African American female?
Posted September 28, 2012
Posted May 24, 2010
Posted February 26, 2009
I just recently finished reading this book and couldn't believe I had slept on it, or this author all these years. I loved her writing. I felt as if she were my best girlfriend telling me a story on her couch. I could see and feel the settings, the characters, and the roller coaster ride of emotions. Having lived there for several years, I could relate to the references to life in the West End of Atlanta. I was so drawn into the story, I read this book over a weekend, in between all the stuff of family life and other responsibilities. It was worth those late nights! And after finishing it, I kept thinking about it during the week, so now I'm back to buy her other novels. This is a book that inspires self-reflection, gives some gifts, and offers a worthwhile escape from the demands of the world outside of fiction. Can't wait to get her other books. If her best-seller is better than Babylon Sisters, I must be in store for a real treat. Keep doing your thing, Ms. Pearl.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 26, 2007
Catherine is an unwed mother whose 17-year-old daughter wants to know who her father is, darn it. And if Catherine won't volunteer the info, then Phoebe will take matters into her own adolescent hands, thankyouverymuch! If my daughter pulled a stunt like what comes next in the book, I would haul her little behind home (from her exclusive boarding school, where she does whatever she pleases) and give her a good, old-fashioned whooping. The push-over mom is an annoying character, both in real life and in fiction. Grow a backbone. I don't know why this book got so many rave reviews. The first 3/4 of the book is unremarkable writing¿nothing that a high-schooler couldn't have written. The last part was the best, with a nice twist or two, but nothing earth-shatteringly brilliant or anything that I will remember 2 months from now. The author has her own agenda to push, and by the end of the book, I was irritated and sick of the whole Sisterhood theme that she kept harping on, like a broken record. She was remarkably like a dog worrying a bone: she just would not let you be a smart reader she had to keep repeating herself, just in case you were too stupid to get it the first 3 times she said something. She obviously has no confidence in the intelligence of her readers. Also in this book: a woman who rose from maid to successful businesswoman, the plight of an illegal immigrant from Haiti, and an investigation about a prostitution ring. By the way, I have not found a new favorite author.
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 19, 2006
Posted August 26, 2005
As usual, the author takes you through not only various relationships, but political affairs and the effect we have on each other when we do not care and it is all about the money. I could relate to the various relationships she developed and the emotions expressed. This book not only made me aware of the importance in our everyday affairs, but the importance of history and keeping it alive. A must read!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 25, 2005
Thank you Pearl Cleage for allowing me to celebrate my womanhood and the men who recognize and respect US. The line 'Respect the Narrative of Women's Lives!' speaks volumes to those of us who cherish our womanhood, our specialness, our place in this world as the protagonist and her circle of friends in 'Babylon Sisters' do. You and Catherine challenge those who want to destroy all that is vital to us and our daughters to do the right thing for ourselves and our daughters. I believe that my daughter is finally ready for your books so I am going to give her all of them and have her read them in order. Continue to encourage us to challenge all that is wrong with our world through your narratives about proud women who do the same.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 13, 2005
Enjoyed Pearl's latest novel. Many women of today can readily relate to this story line. My book club members all enjoyed it and some had found themselves in similar situations regarding past relationships.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 19, 2005
Pearl Cleage is among the top writers of today. She writes about people with issues that we can identify with. Keep it up, Pearl! I eagerly await your next novel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 11, 2005
Pearl has written an interesting novel again. This author gets better with each of her books. This one was indeed interesting and all I can say is 'KEEP ON KEEPING ON'.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 10, 2005
I have been a fan of Mrs.Cleage from the moment i have read her first book. I have read everything Mrs.Cleage has written and highly recommend reading all of her novels, she is one of the most inspirational authors, i always look forward to seeing what she comes out with next... Keep up the good work..we love youWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 9, 2005
One thing this novel does is hold your attention from start to finish. Ms Cleague's writing style has definitely improved, because each of her books get better as she moves along. Babylon Sisters was enjoyable. I am sure quite a few females will be able to relate to this storyline, when it comes to past relationships that did not survive.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 27, 2008
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Posted June 30, 2011
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