I Wish I Had a Red Dress

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Overview

Oprah Winfrey recommended Pearl Cleage's previous novel to her vast television audience, and soon readers—and listeners—were reveling in the joys—and aching over the sorrows—of life in tiny Idlewild, Michigan. Now Cleage brings back the characters—but this time, Ava's big sister, Joyce, will sparkle. Unlike her younger sister, Joyce has never been flamboyant; has never owned a red dress or the kind of life that goes along with it. But now, after many years of selfless service to others, she feels it's time to do ...
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Overview

Oprah Winfrey recommended Pearl Cleage's previous novel to her vast television audience, and soon readers—and listeners—were reveling in the joys—and aching over the sorrows—of life in tiny Idlewild, Michigan. Now Cleage brings back the characters—but this time, Ava's big sister, Joyce, will sparkle. Unlike her younger sister, Joyce has never been flamboyant; has never owned a red dress or the kind of life that goes along with it. But now, after many years of selfless service to others, she feels it's time to do something special for herself—especially since there's the unmistakable hint of romance on the wind…
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
It's not surprising that Joyce Mitchell wears black all the time; her life has been full of darkness and death. Her story is the sequel to Cleage's well-received debut novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, and is also set in a small Michigan town formerly a resort for wealthy African Americans. Joyce is a social worker counseling young African American women, dedicated to guiding them through teenage pregnancies and destructive relationships. She herself has been on her own for five years of widowhood, and aside from some dreaming, she cannot imagine a life in which wearing a beautiful red dress is ever going to be possible. Then Nate, a former Detroit cop and new high school counselor, moves into town. Nate and Joyce's relationship is developing at the same time Joyce is trying to protect one of her members from a violent man. As reader, Cleage captures the struggles, tensions, and "cosmic confusion" of the war between the sexes in her fictional African American community. The struggles will continue, of course, but the hope is there for an occasion to wear that wonderful red dress. Recommended for public and academic libraries that feature African American fiction. Barbara Valle, El Paso P.L., TX Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An Oprah Book Club author (also see Mitchard, below) returns with a relentlessly on-message companion novel to What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (1997), this one featuring Ava's older sister Joyce, a strong woman who finally finds a man who's good enough. Now a 40-year-old widow, Joyce tells her own story, set in the same lakeside African-American town of Idlewild, Michigan. Her narrative is tiresomely politically correct, not only about gender issues (she teaches young black women to be themselves and fight sexism), but about food (she's a vegetarian), exercise (she does Tai'chi), and race (the music and movies she likes are almost exclusively black). It begins with her failure to obtain state funding for the Sewing Circus, a social program Joyce created that tries to lend a hand to young women who leave school when they become pregnant. The Circus provides day care, instruction in new skills, and, just as importantly, advice on how to stand up to the young men who abuse, impregnate, and limit them. Joyce still misses husband Mitch and hasn't found anyone to compare. While she struggles to find new funding for the Circus, she also has to deal with the Lattimores, a feckless family of petty criminals and seducers whose mother thinks they're perfect. The Lattimore boys, especially Junior, aren't happy that Joyce has encouraged Nikki, one of their women, to move out with her child. Meantime, Joyce realizes that she's been wearing black for too long, and she begins to contemplate a change when friends introduce her to handsome Nate, the new high school counselor and a divorced former policeman. But before she's ready to put on a red dress and begin living a little, Joyce mustconfront Junior, survive a violent attack, and negotiate her own set of gender issues with Nate. More a bully pulpit than a novel. First printing of 125,000; $125,000 ad/promo; author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380804887
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/28/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial Series
  • Edition description: 1st Perennial Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Pearl Cleage

Pearl Cleage is the author of Mad at Miles: A Black Woman's Guide to Truth and Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot. An accomplished Playwright, she teaches playwriting at Spelman College, is a cofounder of the literary magazine Catalyst and writes a column for the Atlanta Tribune. Ms. Cleage lives in Atlanta with her husband. What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day...is her first novel.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Joyce

I wish I had a red dress. I've been wearing black for so long I feel like one of those ancient women in the foreign movies who are always sitting around, fingering their rosary beads and looking resigned while the hero rides to his death on behalf of the people, or for the sake of true love, which is really six of one, half dozen of the other, when you think about it.

I never cared much about clothes. My basic requirement is comfort, which automatically cuts out high-heeled shoes, pushup bras, panty hose and strapless evening gowns, but could theoretically still leave room for a range of colors, fabrics and even a stylish little something or other for special occasions.

The convenience of all black used to appeal to me. I loved the fact that I could reach into my closet and know everything I touched was going to match everything else I touched with absolutely no effort on my part, but it can be a little depressing sometimes. Even to me.

I didn't consciously start wearing black as a sign of mourning, even though at some subconscious level, I probably did. My husband, Mitch, died five years ago, which is when I really started noticing it, but he was just the last of a long line. My father passed when I was sixteen. My mother committed suicide on my wedding night a year later. My son got hit by a car walking home from school when he was six and my daughter didn't make it to her first birthday. I think she was the hardest one for me to deal with because I barely got to know her and she was gone.

It was just the opposite withMitch. We'd been together since I was fifteen and we were so close I made the mistake of thinking we were the same person until he fell through that hole in the ice and drowned and I didn't die, even though for a long time I wished I had.

My baby sister, Ava, says it's hard to keep your body looking good when you know nobody's going to see you naked. She could have added that when you know your primary audience when clothed is preschoolers, some distracted teenage mothers, a few retirees and a government bureaucrat or two, it's equally difficult to get up much enthusiasm for earrings that dangle and skirts that swirl like you're standing in a little breeze even when you're not.

I'm a social worker. I used to be a teacher. Then one day I looked around and realized that what I was teaching and the way I was teaching it were completely irrelevant to my students' real lives. They were just ordinary kids from around here; young and wild and full of the most complicated human emotions and not nearly enough facility in any language to articulate those feelings to each other or to anyone else. But one day I saw them, really saw them, and everything changed.

It was a public high school and my classes were coed, but it was the girls who kept drawing my attention. There they'd be, balancing their squalling babies on their hips in the grocery store, slapping their toddlers at the Blockbuster, rolling their eyes and tossing their extensions, considering exotic dancing as a career option, falling in love with the wrong guys, being abused, getting AIDS and steadily having kids the whole time, and they were so absolutely confined and confused by their tiny little fearbased dreams that I looked out at them one day while I was trying to teach a poem by e. e. cummings, and they broke my heart. I started crying and had to dismiss the class so I could get myself together.

That's when I knew there had to be a better way to communicate with these girls than the one I was using. I decided that finding that better way was going to be my life's work because I don't think a group of people can survive if the women don't even have enough sense to raise their children.

That's why clothes are usually the last thing on my mind. Black pants and a black turtleneck without applesauce showing anywhere are about the best I can hope for at the moment, but somehow I can't get that red dress out of my mind.

I Wish I Had a Red Dress. Copyright © by Pearl Cleage. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

Returning to Idlewild, Michigan and some of the characters who captured readers' hearts in her bestseller, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, Pearl Cleage writes a beautifully realized work about modern times, second chances, and making a difference in other people's lives.

Joyce Mitchell, widowed too young, has a full life as a social worker, one filled with purpose and good friends. But she's begun thinking about putting aside the black clothes she's found so easy to wear for so long and getting a red dress. She is also realizing that she needs something more in her life. When her best friend, Sister, fixes her up with the tallest, sexiest man she's ever met, she sees all sorts of possibilities -- and too many reasons why it's the wrong time to fall in love.

And Joyce has to quickly figure out what to do with the Sewing Circus, the all-girl group she founded to provide day care services and counseling to local girls, many of whom are single mothers. For many of these young women, the Sewing Circus is a lifeline amid drug problems and abusive relationships. But the government has decided not to fund her program, and Joyce is desperately looking for alternatives...while one of the Sewing Circus members finds herself fighting for her life in this provocative and blazingly frank look at contemporary African American issues and universal matters of the heart.

Discussion Questions

  • One of the characters, Sister, makes up a list of questions for discussing movies at the Sewing Circus's film festival. She begins with: "Do I believe this character exists in the real world? Do I like her?" Apply this question to the novel'sprotagonist, Joyce.
  • What does Joyce's "red dress" symbolize?
  • Joyce feels that movies can provide life lessons for the girls in the Sewing Circus: "My hope is that if they can recognize preventable foolishness on the screen, the lessons they learn will carry over into their real lives." (p. 77). Do you agree with Joyce? What are other benefits, or dangers, of exposing young people to art, whether it's literature, painting, or the performing arts?
  • "That the problem with black women" says Bill. He adds, "The essence of true love is surrender. All the great poets agree on that. And if there is one thing a black woman will not do, it's surrender! No wonder nobody can stay together for longer than twenty minutes at a time." (p. 239). Do you agree this is the problem with black women in relationships?
  • Love relationships are a major theme in this novel. Can you identify three "prototypes" or different kinds of heterosexual intimate relationships depicted through the book? Are any exclusive to the African-American community?
  • Black men are working to "get their act together" in this book. Bill's workshop comes up with a list of "For Men Only" goals. If you could add your "two cents," what list would you create for them? About the Author: "The purpose of my writing, often, is to express the point where racism and sexism meet." An accomplished playwright, journalist, poet, and novelist, Pearl Cleage probes issues of race, sex, and love in a growing body of literary work while she reveals poignant truths about brave black women.
Born on December 7, 1948 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Pearl Michelle Cleage grew up in Detroit, Michigan. Her father was a prominent minister who ran for governor of Michigan in 1962 on the Freedom Ticket; her mother was an elementary school teacher.Since the early 1980s, Cleage has drawn national attention with her dramatic works, which include Flyin' West, an extraordinary play about pioneer black women at the turn of the century, and Blues for an Alabama Sky. Her first novel What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, was an Oprah's Book Club selection, a New York Times bestseller, and a BCALA Literary Award winner. She is also the author of I Wish I Had a Red Dress, Mad at Miles, and Deals with the Devil. A contributing editor to Essence magazine, Pearl Cleage frequently performs her work on college campuses. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, Zaron W. Burnett, Jr.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 24 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 1, 2012

    Good Read

    This was a book club discussion book, I highly recommend this book and any others by this author

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 25, 2011

    Highly Recommend!!!

    I really love her books. This was a great read... This was a great follow up book...

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2004

    Book for a Lifetime

    This novel is absolutely brilliant!!! The idea of being a 'free woman,' self-love/acceptance, and looking within are necessary fundamentals that we can apply in all of our lives. The Sewing Circus reinforces the need for communication and support between Black women and it proves that we can exchange education, knowledge, and ideas amongst ourselves without tearing one another down. The novel also demonstrates unconditional love and how much you receive back when you give of yourself and help others. The narrative style is amazing and the dialogue simply sparkles. The novel is sprinkled with many breaktaking vignettes esp the story of the Smitherman twin and the day spent at the Glass Menagerie with the married man & the glass unicorns - there are so many stories within this one work!!! This book is so full of life, experience, love, sisterhood, and healing that the pages come alive!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2004

    Great

    I read this book in a few hours it had me turning pages so fast to see what happened next. I think I stopped breathing a few time in between pages.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2003

    I'm sorry it ended

    Kudos to Pearl Cleage. This sequel to 'What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day' was such a delightful read! I hated to see it end and found myself going back reading certain sections again. I hope this sequel has a sequel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2013

    One of my absolute favorites...

    Yaaay Pearl!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2012

    Love it

    Superb

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2009

    good read

    as always

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2003

    Overall good reading. Well thought out.

    I enjoyed this book on a trip to Denver while travelling on the train. There were times when I was somewhat bored by the read but mostly was entertained by the ending of the book and the characters referenced. It seems like the book could have given a bit more but it doesn't offend the casual reader so I feel it is better than the average book out there now.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2003

    AMAZING

    This book was truly a work of art! I found my self crying at points in the book that weren't even sad, she just made me want to be a stronger woman... or a 'free woman' as she described in the book. This novel was so beautifully written and i enjoyed it from cover to cover, and still wanted more. What happens after everything quieted down??? I found myself really thinking about the questions that she asked the girls of 'the circus'The only thing that i did not understand about the story was that she said she had an adopted daughter that she never mentioned but once in the book. BUT OVERALL THIS IS A GREAT READ AND I ENCOURAGE ALL YOUNG LADIES LIKE MYSELF TO READ IT.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2002

    Inspiring!

    Our book club loved this book. It's funny, dramatic, and full of wisdom.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2002

    A real gem.

    I thoughht this book was really thought provoking. It is the sequel to What looks like crazy on an ordinary day. Both books are very well written and capture you from the first page. I wish I had a red dress is written with such a powerful message it is a great addition to any home library. The main character is strong, kind and brave, she encourages the reader to take a good look at themselves and delve into serious issues between men and woman as well as woman to woman. A must read

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2002

    A Good Read

    I really enjoyed this book. I read it for my book club (Between The Covers Book Club- Winston-Salem, NC) and I was a good read. At times it was kinda boring but for the most part I enjoyed it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2001

    Great Feel Good Book

    I simply adored this book and the authors style of writing it. I have never read work like this before..with such clever and thought out (it seemed) dialouge. The authors wit and charm hooked me from the very beginning of the novel and when I was done with it I really really missed the characters!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2001

    Truly Inspring, Interesting and Captivating

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The main character was so inspiring in what she was trying to accomplish with the Circus and how she influenced the lives of the young mothers. It made me want to go out and create something positive for young sisters and the brothers too. I enjoyed the characters of the two sisters, they reminded me of the Delaney Sisters. Truly a good read for young and old.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2001

    witty and truthful

    My book club choose this book to read and it was a great pick. The book was insightful, and witty. I loved the concepts and the characters. Pearl, I still want to know more about Joyce. Everyone deserves a 'Sister' in their life and the right to be a free woman.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2001

    Five Stars

    If you ever loved anyone completely, (whether it be a husband, sister, child, friend, or whatever) then this book is for you. It will remind you just how important it is to be surrounded by those who you love and those who love you in return..unconditionally.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2001

    Outstanding, Awesome!! Powerful and Truly Touching

    This book deserves more than 5 stars in my opinion. I found it to be very powerful, outstanding and truly touching. I was delighted that Pearl focused on Joyce Mitchell, the lady and older sister of Ava from her book, What looks like Crazy on an ordinary day...which I also read and truly enjoyed. Joyce is very refreshing and inspiring. The work she does with The Circus is outstanding. Through her we come to meet people like Tee(Tomika), Shelia, Sister and Bill, Nate, the Smitherman twins, Nikki and the Lattimore to name a few. The story isn't hard to follow with all the characters and it also offers some wonderful life lessons and moments that make you really think about your life and how we have an impact on the lives of others as well. I laughed, cried and rejoiced while reading this book and haven't stopped talking about it yet. I can't wait to share it my friends and family and get their feedback!! That's just how powerful it is and it has a little bit of everything for everybody. Pearl did a beauitful job once again and it was a sheer pleasure meeting and hosting her in Houston.(July 2001) This book is great for book clubs and is sure to be another bestseller for her. It should be another Oprah Book Club choice.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2001

    similar to Crazy

    Pearl has done it again. She brings to life Ava's sister from her previous novel to discuss her journey from grieving widow to dating and finding love again. She even tells about the other characters and their growth in the small town of Idlewild. Its a good book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2001

    A Good Summer Read

    I thought this book was very well written with a cast of interesting characters, witty on-liners, and cleaver dialog. Cleage's writing style is truly enlightening and inspiring ¿ she focuses on ¿life issues¿ like self-love/acceptance, courage/inner strength, and self reliance ¿ delivering messages through the scenarios and characters in Idlewild. Although I would have liked her to have deeper defined the concept of the ¿free woman¿ and the shared more background of some of the supporting characters, like the Lattimores, Sister, and the twins¿but perhaps that¿s for another book. Overall, it was a great summer read with a happy ending. I enjoyed it and look forward to her next release.

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