McKinney-Whetstone weaves an intricate tapestry of love, pain and memory in her latest. Neena spends most of her adult life trying to track down her unstable, long-disappeared mother, Freeda, and funds her quest by blackmailing the married men she sleeps with. When a scam backfires in Chicago and Neena has to run for her life, she flees to hometown Philadelphia and discovers her sister, Tish, is in the hospital with a protracted pregnancy. Neena, not ready to face her grandmother Nan's rules and church-going ways, finds a flop and tries to keep her scam game going while revisiting the myriad disappointments and hurts caused by her mother's mental illness. But things get complicated when she meets Cliff, her latest mark. Meanwhile, Neena's friendship with street musician Bow Peep offers a chance at redemption, and Nan worries over her grandchildren and thinks back on Freeda's unstable father. Philly is as much a character as the women, and if all the picking at old wounds grows tiresome and predictable, Neena's dire straits are nicely handled and provide a pretty sharp hook. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
McKinney-Whetstone returns to familiar territory-the African-American community of West Philadelphia-in her latest novel (Blues Dancing, 1999, etc.). This time out, a grandmother and granddaughter try to come to terms with the complicated woman who ties them together. Troubled Neena, who left home at 20 in search of her mentally ill mother, Freeda, returns to Philadelphia over a decade later desperate for help. She has been working as a blackmailer, having learned at a young age to use her charm and looks to her advantage, but things have gone awry. Neena hopes to seek refuge with her high-achieving sister, Tish, but soon learns that she is in the hospital due to a difficult pregnancy, clinging to her life. Standing between the two sisters is Nan, Neena's estranged grandmother, who raised the girls after Freeda abandoned them when they were teenagers. Nan, a God-fearing dressmaker, has had her share of hardship-she spent much of her life caring for her alcoholic husband, Alfred, and clearly blames herself for both Freeda's and Neena's problems. When Neena returns, she and Nan have not spoken in many years, and Nan worries that Neena's presence will upset Tish and harm her or the baby. With the links to her family severed, Neena flirts with the temptations of her old career when she is set up professionally with Cliff, a married aspiring politician. But as fragile Neena, in some of the novel's most captivating passages, navigates memories of her difficult childhood, she also starts to realize that Cliff might be different, and that unlike Freeda, her life might actually still turn around. A final reunion scene that seems all too quick and easy, given the pages of struggle, also shows Neenahow family, especially Nan, can still be a part of this new life. A vibrant, perfectly drawn setting and natural dialogue save an otherwise unremarkable story.
“[A] poignant, multigenerational story. . . . An achingly tender portrait of familial love and pain.”
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Trading Dreams at Midnight
A NovelChapterOneIt had been twenty years since Freeda spun in and out of home the way that fabric did when it was unwound from those huge bolts all up and down along Fourth Street in South Philadelphia. A hot pink raw silk Freeda was when she was a happy girl, spreading herself out into a mesmerizing display with her thunderstorm hair and butter brown lips until her sadness hit and she'd scrunch herself up into a tight bland button and then poof, she was gone. That's how Neena was known to describe Freeda's comings and goings. Neena, Freeda's oldest daughter.Freeda would leave Neena and her other child, Tish, with her mother, Nan, blowing kisses as she backed out the door promising to return in an hour that stretched into days and months. Nan, a small brick of a woman who didn't play, threatened to turn Freeda in to child protective ser-vices and dared her to try to see the girls again. Though Freeda always saw them again. She would return ebullient, twirling like a spinning top, newly hired as an administrative assistant to some small-business owner who'd found her irresistible. She'd move the girls to a rented house and paint the walls pink because she said she needed the pink to stay happy. Neena, begging Freeda just to stay, for good this time, the happiness will come Mommy if you just stay.But Freeda never could stay. Certainly couldn't stay twenty years ago that February night back in 1984 when a gray winter had passed out over Philadelphia like a fat drunk, thick and immovable. She was trying to stay until at least the winter sobered up enough to grunt and move over some and make way for a stream of yellow. She thought that if shecould just stay until the spring she could stay for good. Especially in the -house that she owned finally that her man-friend Wendell, an almost-divorced real estate/insurance broker had bought for her, paid cash in full at a sheriff?'s sale. A charming row -house on a big street where they could tell the time of day by hearing what the traffic did; where in the summer the porch had a plump-cushioned glider and red four o'clocks filled the garden and bloomed on schedule and prettied up a summer night; in the winter Freeda baked coconut layer cakes from scratch and she and the girls passed afternoons at the living room window counting the colors in the prisms the mammoth icicles made, Freeda singing "Let It Be" as the warmth from the radiator pulsed against their corduroys sending a sweet steamy smell through the room.But by then Freeda was already trying to hold back the dark mood looming. When the girls were asleep and the whoosh of traffic outside was done, she'd sometimes lose herself for hours over the kitchen table cramming her mouth with Argo starch. She'd hold the starch in her mouth, then mash it into a paste until it inched down her throat thick like mud, or lima bean puree. Then the essence of the starch would drift to her brain in surges and she'd feel giddy, then drunk, then intensely focused, and then her sadness would back off enough for her to live like a halfway sane person lived: slicing mushrooms for Salisbury steak; ironing white cotton blouses for the girls to usher in when Nan corralled them to church; giggling with Wendell when he spent the night on the living room couch.Always too soon though, the starch quit on her, and the space inside her head would become the Academy of Music featuring Porgy & Bess and Sportin' Life would commence to singing "It Ain't Necessarily So." And in between his declarations of seeing and believing, he told Freeda what to do. "Leave, Freeda, leave" was his usual sing-songy command. She always complied; the only way to shut down his voice was for her to comply. Not that middle of the night, though, in 1984. She couldn't believe what he told her to do then. Told her to get the extra pillow from the top of the dining room closet and start with Neena because Neena would be easier than Tish; Tish would kick and scream; Tish would fight back. But Neena adored her so, trusted her, it would be lovely how gently fifteen-year-old Neena would succumb.Her whole body shook by the time she reached the black air of the dining room and opened the closet door. Neena herself had or-ga-nized the closet so that the boots were lined in size order on the floor, the coats from light to heavy hanging on the thick steel pole, hats and scarves on the top shelf, and in the very back the extra bed pillow that Wendell used when he slept on the living room couch. She scattered the hats and scarves to get to the pillow, held the pillow between her hands and kneaded it to judge its thickness. She pressed the pillow to her as if it were her firstborn about to go down for a nap the way she'd pressed Neena to her when she was a baby, a tender desperation to the press as if to say if you die in your sleep know you were truly loved. Then she shouted, "No! I won't," as she threw the pillow across the dining room; the crystal pieces dangling from the chandelier made small crying sounds as the pillow whizzed by. She snatched a coat from the closet then. Put the coat over the starch-dusted paisley robe and covered her ears with her hands and ran through the living room on out the front door.Neena had been perplexed by the line of spilled starch that tracked from the kitchen table to the dining room closet on through the living room until it seemed to disintegrate into the braided welcome mat on the vestibule floor. She took it as a sign that Freeda would be directly back but on the third day she woke to her mother still gone.The absence was like a trough of cold air hanging over Freeda's bed; Neena and eleven-year-old Tish had been sleeping in Freeda's bed as if their combined scents rising off of their mother's bed might pull her back home. The air was really cold because the heater had grunted and then died the day before so Neena woke worrying about how to get them heat. They'd not yet told Nan that Freeda had disappeared again. Neena determined that they could make a go of it without Nan, convinced that's what Freeda wanted. Why else had she left them -ere and not with Nan the way she usually did.Then Tish woke the way she'd fallen asleep, crying, insisting that she wanted to go back and live with Nan, she wanted Nan to take care of them again. Neena countering again the same way she had the night before, "We're not babies anymore, Tish, we don't need Nan to come flying in on her broom and carting us back to Kansas." Kansas is how Neena referred to Nan's middle-of-the-block row house on Delancey Street. She tried not to notice the puffs of smoke forming along the edges of her words as she pushed her point with Tish, the smoke mocking her point so she got completely out of the bed. To remain there, warm though it was under the covers, meant that she would be listening to Tish sob in wallows that went all the way to her bones.Trading Dreams at Midnight
A Novel. Copyright © by Diane McKinney-Whetstone. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.\