I Wish I Had a Red Dress

I Wish I Had a Red Dress

4.5 24
by Pearl Cleage

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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… See more details below


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…

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

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial Series
Edition description:
1st Perennial Edition
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


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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