Chasing Sophea

Chasing Sophea

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by Gabrielle Pina

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“Poignant and gripping . . . a heartfelt portrayal of a family’s shameful secrets and the power of unconditional love.”
–Tracy Price-Thompson, author of A Woman’s Worth

People don’t usually name tornadoes, but that year, Daddy insisted. “Any twister that beautiful and that dangerous can only be female. Reminds me of


“Poignant and gripping . . . a heartfelt portrayal of a family’s shameful secrets and the power of unconditional love.”
–Tracy Price-Thompson, author of A Woman’s Worth

People don’t usually name tornadoes, but that year, Daddy insisted. “Any twister that beautiful and that dangerous can only be female. Reminds me of a woman I used to know named Sophea.” He laughed. “Sophea, Sophea.”

Dahlia’s life should be perfect. She’s a successful businesswoman with a wonderful husband and a beautiful daughter. But Dahlia senses that something isn’t quite right. More and more often, she has the feeling of being lost in her own body, completely mystified by the simplest things, like traffic lights and car horns. These spells strike at anytime, anywhere. And though aware that she’s off balance, Dahlia has no idea what could be the cause.

As Dahlia’s grasp on reality loosens, the signs lead to a traumatic event from her childhood that has made its way into her adult life. There is someone else lurking in the back of Dahlia’s mind–and she wants out. Now she must revisit the painful past, and the memories of a mother who had her own mental demons. The only problem is: Dahlia might have to lose herself entirely if she wants to discover the secrets of that long-ago day when Sophea came to town.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Despite her cushy Pasadena life and marriage to the preciously nicknamed "Milky," part-time college teacher Dahlia Chang suffers blackouts and headaches, can't remember a thing about her childhood except her mother dying suddenly and is subject to the malicious jealousy of mysterious bad girl Phoebe. Gradually, Pina (Bliss) reveals what the reader guesses early on-that Phoebe is an alter ego, the product of a mental trauma Dahlia suffered as a girl. Enter Dahlia's Aunt Baby, who resolves to heal Dahlia, even if it means hauling Dahlia to the plantationlike home in Dallas where she grew up to confront the past. Meanwhile, unaware of his wife's journey, Milky strikes out for Dallas on his own to investigate her mysterious condition and learns from resident grave digger Percival Tweed about Dahlia's sordid family history. Emotions drive this novel; the characters often amount to little more than convenient vehicles that speak and think in either hoary dialect or wooden exchanges. When the living and the dead finally reunite, the book picks up a small bit of suspenseful steam and becomes an affecting story about the power of family love to mend old wounds. (Nov.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Chasing Sophea is certainly chasing after Oprah fans. This story of a young woman overcoming past traumas offers a heady brew of the supernatural and psychological, with a helping of Southern Gothic. A young wife and mother named Dahlia enjoys a successful career in Southern California. But then a long-buried memory from her childhood resurfaces, threatening to ruin her life. Dahlia's troubles go back to the tragedies experienced by the Culpepper family in Dallas, who have operated a funeral home for eight generations. The clan includes a black albino gravedigger, a half-Choctaw aunt with healing powers, and an unhappy woman named Mercy Blue who wears only red. Pina (Bliss) is especially gifted at pacing her story and teasing readers with intriguing flashbacks. You don't have to be African American to enjoy this suspenseful novel, though it probably helps if you are a female reader. Recommended for any public library.-Leslie Patterson, Blanding P.L., Rehoboth, MA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Dahlia has a secret, and so does Lucius, and Uncle Brother, and Aunt Baby, and the albino gravedigger. Dahlia is a successful, beautiful, middle-class African-American woman living in California with a handsome husband and darling daughter. But when we meet her, her need to forget her traumatic past is about to drive her over the edge. A mysterious woman named Phoebe plots to steal Dahlia's husband, daughter and house. Meanwhile, back in Dallas, her estranged father, Lucius, resists a nervous breakdown while running the funeral home that's been in the family for three generations. Lucius's young wife, Mercy Blue, bored with adding red dresses to her collection, is despondent and hysterical. Aunt Baby's corns are throbbing-a sure sign of trouble-and Percival Tweed, the black albino gravedigger, is restless. What's everybody so upset about? After 100 pages or so of repetitive set-up and hand-waving (Look! Big Family Trauma!), Pina finally begins to move her plot along, only to quickly halt it again with a series of "revelations" that only occasionally thrill or surprise in spite of their lurid content. The author's habit of moving from viewpoint to viewpoint provides plenty of stories, but they don't cohere into a larger one, and the characters don't emerge as anything but quick, albeit colorful, sketches identified by their quirky habits or physical characteristics. This is particularly problematic with would-be protagonist Dahlia and is exacerbated by the nature of the plot, which requires her to disappear for long stretches. The prose is, on the whole, enjoyable, and thus many readers will overlook the cliches and lack of depth, but fans of Toni Morrison will quickly recognize thisauthor's inspiration and unfulfilled ambitions. Gothic lite meets chick lit in a slow potboiler.

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Chasing Sophea

By Gabrielle Pina

Random House

Gabrielle Pina

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0345476190

Chapter One

Chapter 1

It was happening again: that feeling of being adrift in her own body, mystified by the simplest of things. Like a mourned lover, it had crept up on her out of nowhere, intoxicating her senses, and she struggled to remain focused on the task at hand. But what was the task? And how long would it be before she remembered--seconds like before or hours? Days perhaps. Unfortunately, time for her had become much too easy to lose.

Dahlia paused at the light on the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Orange Grove and wondered where she would end up this time. The signal changed, horns sounded, and still confusion in all its glory danced around in her head, spinning and twirling with reckless abandon. She was aware that she was somehow off balance, but she was at a loss for how to identify the cause of her difficulty. If anyone were to ask her, she wouldn't know how to adequately articulate how she felt without sounding like she was in desperate need of a padded room and wrist restraints. No, there was nothing to be revealed to anyone about these random spells that were beginning to occur more and more frequently. She would work through them--lean into the curve, so to speak--and in time, this one would pass just like the others and she would be no worse for wear. Wrinkled a little, yes, but not shredded into countless pieces--not right now, anyway. Dahlia pressed her foot on the acceleratorand followed the gold Mercedes in front of her onto the 134 freeway. Today she'd go west toward Los Angeles, toward the ocean.

Oftentimes during moments like these, Dahlia reached for an emotional anchor to weigh her down and keep her grounded--a fond memory to calm her insides--but memories good or bad hid from her religiously. She guessed they lingered in her mind trapped in tight spaces unwilling to make an appearance. She longed to remember what it felt like not to be nearly hysterical twenty-four hours a day, but she didn't have the energy to go chasing after any phantom recollections. Lately it seemed she didn't have the energy to do much of anything--work, play, or love intensely the way she used to. Her life was escaping from her in minuscule increments day by day, and God help her, sometimes she wanted to simply turn herself off, give in to the pressure and be done with breathing already. But she was stronger than that. Or at least that's what she always told herself in the midnight hour when thoughts of suicide attempted to seduce her.

Last night had been more of the usual tossing and turning, screaming and sweating, and this morning her depression was compounded by the lone gray hair she discovered languishing in her punanni as if it belonged there, as if it were finally home. She'd gasped in horror and imagined herself at ninety years old napping in a wheelchair smelling of Bengay and peppermint patties. She'd grabbed tweezers and plucked wildly, trying desperately not to cry in front of her amused husband. He'd laughed, of course, and teased her until that heavy feeling in her chest subsided. "Welcome to my world," he'd said with a broad grin, and she did feel better for a while or at least until she walked out the door. He was good at that, though, making her forget herself at times. But now even he couldn't control what was happening to her, and neither, it appeared, could she. She blinked back tears and rummaged around in her purse for Excedrin, Advil, or anything that would make her head stop aching. "No," she whispered. "Go away." But the pain persisted, and she kept driving, oblivious to the sugarcoated life waiting for her on the other side of town.

Chapter 2

"Dahlia, baby, it's time to get up. I don't want you to be late again."

"Late for what? What are you talking about?"

"I've taken care of everything. All you have to do is shower, dress, and get in the car."

Dahlia pressed her face deeper into her goose-down pillow. It was so fluffy and obviously new, but she didn't remember buying it, and Michael--or Milky, as she liked to call him--would never purchase such a luxury. Normally she would be up, out the door, and on her way to the Coffee Bean for a nonfat pure vanilla ice blended. This morning it didn't seem to matter that she had thirty-odd students at Pasadena City College waiting impatiently for her to give a lecture on God knows what. Lying in bed all day daydreaming seemed preferable to actually opening her eyes or even moving. Maybe, just maybe, if she didn't move, kept still like the dead, he'd have mercy on her and leave her be for a moment longer. She wasn't ready. Why couldn't he tell that she wasn't ready? Couldn't a woman be depressed and suicidal in peace? Jesus.

Still somewhat oblivious to Michael's pleas for acknowledgment, Dahlia continued to think about the benefits of remaining buried under a mountain of hand-stitched quilts until the familiar intrusion of cool air jolted her back to the now, to the what is. Real life began to tickle the underside of her toes and disturb the cozy cocoon she'd managed to create for herself. Like yesterday and the day before, Michael had removed the covers and proceeded to swing her legs over the side of the bed as if she were a disobedient child. Despite her budding anger, she decided that she should be grateful for the distraction. If it weren't for him pushing her forward lately, she'd be a mess, an absolute zombie stumbling around Pasadena proper in Jimmy Choo shoes.

"Dahlia, I want you to talk to a doctor about this."

"Milky, I'm just tired, that's all."

"You're always tired, Dahlia. You go to sleep and wake up tired. And frankly, I'm tired of you being tired. I want you to make an appointment to see someone today. I mean it. I spoke to Stan and got the name of a good doctor."

"Are you attempting to tell me what to do, Milky?"

"Something is not right here, Dahlia, and we have to find out what it is. Maybe you have chronic fatigue syndrome or--" Dahlia interrupted before he prattled off an endless list of possibilities that could explain her exhaustion. He was a lists man. She'd learned early on in their relationship to ask questions that had only one answer if time was a consideration because Michael was always prepared with countless options. If only he wanted to be a game show contestant, they'd be millionaires by now.

"If this has anything do with last night, I just didn't feel like it, okay? The world is not going to end because you didn't get any from your wife."

"Don't give me that bullshit, Dahl. Are you intimating that I care more about having sex with you than I do about your health? Or perhaps you think I enjoy making love to a vegetable? Woman, you must be losing your mind."

"Fuck you, Michael."

"I'd love to oblige you, baby, but unfortunately at the moment there's no time and my desire has waned considerably. Make the appointment, Dahlia, or I'll make it for you." Michael turned her head to face him. "And, yes, in case you don't understand me, I am now officially telling you what to do."

Dahlia stared at herself in the mirror for quite some time after she dressed. Michael's voice seemed to be emanating from everywhere, echoing from her brain, bouncing off the hand-painted tiles in the bathroom . . . You think I like making love to a vegetable? . . . You must be losing your mind. What the hell did he know, anyway? Everything in his life had been perfect, no glitches or unexpected bumps in the road, just smooth sailing for him and his precious family. Well, no matter what Michael said. Today, she sensed, was not a good day, and she knew instinctively that once she stepped one foot out the door, it would immediately begin to rain on her head. She'd say the hell with it and stay home if Michael weren't hovering, waiting to see if she made it to the driveway. It was only a matter of time before he began to follow her to work or slapped one of those steel contraptions around her ankle like she was some runaway convict.

She fought her first impulse to drive through the alley, sneak back into her own house, and hide underneath the covers until the oddness passed. It wasn't anything she could put her finger on exactly. It was simply a feeling of bewilderment that she couldn't quite shake. What was happening to her? She used to be able to move from one day to the next with some semblance of comfort. Living, breathing, and loving had never been this difficult. She had a family to take care of, classes to teach, and a business to help run. Those were her priorities, and whatever was happening to her had to take a backseat. So what if she was fatigued? She'd been fatigued all her life and had managed just fine, thank you. She didn't need some quack to tell her to take a vacation and get more sleep. She'd always managed to expertly cover her tracks when these random spells hit and interrupted her structured life of details.

She'd have to pull it together so Michael could relax and stop worrying so much. She needed to make him believe that everything was all right. This time she managed to convince herself that he was simply perturbed because she hadn't returned his affections last night or the night before. Was there some law against a wife being too exhausted to make love with her husband? She assumed that after eight years of marriage, he'd understand that her lack of desire was merely temporary and had nothing whatsoever to do with him. Men were always so dramatic and impatient. They constantly believed the world revolved around them and their needs. Nevertheless, she intended to make it up to him. As soon as this latest spell passed, she planned to seduce him, intrigue him, and make him fall in love with her all over again.

Dahlia surveyed her restless class and began collecting assignments from the previous week. Many of her colleagues were baffled about her decision to teach; they considered it a waste of time. "It's not like you need the money," they'd say. "You can do anything you want."

"Exactly," she'd reply with a smile. She adored teaching and considered it to be something of an art form. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and even below-average students thrived under her tutelage. She had built a successful public relations firm, sold it, and discovered that she still required another venture of sorts to keep her focused, so she began teaching part-time at the city college. She felt calmer--for a while, anyway--and almost normal.

"All right, all right. Settle down, people. I'm here. My apologies for being late again. It was unavoidable." Dahlia didn't much remember what she lectured on after that initial greeting or how long she stood in front of the chalkboard before the unthinkable happened.

She convinced herself that if she just kept lecturing, no one would notice the warm fluid swirling around her leg, quickly fanning into a bright yellow puddle on the floor. She closed her eyes and willed the entire class to disappear, but when she opened them, they were still there, staring dumbfounded.

"That's enough for today," she whispered in a small voice, yet no one budged.

And in that moment, the lesson plan in her head vanished, and there was nothing left to recall, no witty anecdote to share, and no new innovative assignment to give. The class remained unmovable, almost appearing cemented to their desks, waiting for the next scene, the next act, or the inevitable conclusion to a play gone wrong. A tense moment passed, and in that space of time, she couldn't remember why she was there. After peering into startled eyes peering back at her, she decided that there was nothing left for her to do but leave, simply disappear as quickly and unobtrusively as she had arrived. And so, she reached for her purse, grabbed her briefcase, and made damn sure that her cocoa brown suede coat never grazed the miniature pond creeping hopelessly across the floor.

Excerpted from Chasing Sophea
by Gabrielle Pina Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Pina received her MA from the University of Southern California Master of Professional Writing Program. She is a lecturer at the University of Southern California and a member of the adjunct faculty at Pasadena City College. She lives in Southern California with her husband, Ron, and her children, Julian, Maia, and Langston.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Chasing Sophea 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was an awesome book. Entertainment from beginning to end. It was something very different than what you see normally in African-American fiction. Mental illness isn't discussed openly in the black community, and this revolutionary novel opened the door for further conversation on the subject. Well-written and easy to read.