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From Barnes & NobleHappy Families
The strength of Joanna Scott's Make Believe is evident from the novel's first paragraph, in which four-year-old Bo provides a child's-eye view of the car accident that has just taken the life of his mother and left him an orphan. Finding himself upside down, unsure of how he got there or even exactly where he is and what happened, Bo thinks, "Maybe he fell and that's why he was hurting and dangling upside down like a pair of jeans on a wash line. He hurt and his face was wet with warm milk that got sticky as it cooled. But it smelled more like swamp mud than milk. Mud, then. It didn't taste like mud."
Bo is a typical child in some respects: self-conscious yet open about the world, sure that he is at the center of the universe. ("If [his mommy] ever left him it would be his fault.... He hadn't meant to do whatever he'd done and if only she'd give him the chance he would take it back, tell her whatever she wanted to hear!") But Bo's particular universe is anything but typical: His mother, Jenny, was a white 19-year-old who had been involved with an African-American man named Kamon, himself a victim of a violent death. Now, from the accident that begins the novel, Bo becomes the focus of a struggle between his very different sets of grandparents, four proud and difficult people with their own notions of obligation and family.
Joanna Scott is probably best known for her novel The Manikin, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1997. There, as here, her writing is flawless and, in this case, a perfect match for both the earthy, working-class tone of the grandparents and for the kind of lyrical flights of language that take place in Bo's head. Yet what works particularly well here is the juxtaposition of the several points of view, how each version of Bo's life up to the accident—his, the Gilberts' (Kamon's parents), and the Gantzes' (Jenny's parents)—complement each other. Scott clearly counts on an intelligent reader, one who can travel among several points of view and piece together the complex tapestry of broken and blended lives.
Because, of course, nothing is as it appears at first: The Gantzes have a much more complicated history than one might expect from middle-class white people who live in an idyllic village in upper New York state. Eddie Gantz, is not, for starters, Jenny's father; he only married Jenny's mother Marjorie when Jenny was 15. There are issues, too, with Jenny's younger sister Ann, but it's not clear at first just what they are. Given that Jenny grew much closer to her lover's black mother, Erma Gilbert, than to her own, you might be tempted to assume that racism was at the core of the split between Jenny and her parents; only by the end of the book do we see that Jenny's troubles with her parents are even more deep-seated than that.
For their part, the Gilberts are an equally proud and unpredictable family. Initially described as "Jenny's good friends" as well as her ersatz in-laws (Jenny and Kamon never married; Bo is, technically, illegitimate), they soon emerge as both sympathetic and infuriating. When they learn the news of Jenny's death, for example, Erma Gilbert—a woman to whom every bad thing has happened, including the murder of her son—has a disturbing thought, "Not thank God [Bo is alive] or poor Jenny, but now that white girl is gone, Bo is mine to raise properly."
Clearly, there is rage, hate, and violence in Hadleyville, New York, a place that must bear some resemblance to Rochester, where author Scott lives with her husband and daughters. But there is also, ultimately, hope. To reach it, though, Scott must examine the topography of the human psyche. Moving back and forth in time—through several marriages, Jenny's childhood, the tragedy, and its ensuing custody battle—Scott shows us the contradictions in the human heart, the longings and competitions that plague even the most well-meaning. An innocent, Bo has a front-row seat in a drama about possession and love; to survive, he finds a place in which he can forgive and forget who his parents were and weren't.
"[Bo] has not forgotten the past, exactly," Scott writes at the novel's end. "Nor does he have to work at stopping the unpleasant surge of memory. It's just that the was of his life is confusing and he has no interest in sorting through the clutter in search of explanations. Maybe someday he will begin to wonder about those years and try to understand what happened. Or maybe not. Maybe it will be enough to know that he was lucky, luckier than everyone else."
This is another stunning story from a writer with a sharp eye for the intimacies and frailties of human experience.
Sara Nelson, formerly executive editor of The Book Report and book columnist for Glamour, is now managing online editor of Oxygen Media. She also contributes to Newsday, The Chicago Tribune, and Salon.
About the Author
Joanna Scott is the author of four novels, including 1997 Pulitzer Prize finalist The Mankin, and a short story collection, Various Antidotes, which was a finalist for the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award. She has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a Lannan Award. She lives in Rochester, New York.