A busy woman’s visit to an estranged relative reveals an unexpected family connection to a famous poet in this debut novel.
Tomorrow night, Carrie Stevens will be on the red-eye to Seattle, where her husband, Bill, has just accepted a new job. This afternoon, she needs to meet with her lawyer to finalize the sale of their condo. But first, she has to go to Harlem to keep a promise she made to her recently deceased father. Her dad’s cousin Ella is being thrown out of her apartment—the entire building is about to be demolished—and Carrie needs to get her into an assisted living facility. “She has a gift for you,” her father’s final note reads. “It’s something of value that I’m ashamed that I couldn’t give you—and too afraid to give you myself. Carrie, I want this to make it right. I want you to be happy.” Carrie only met Ella as a baby. Carrie’s mother thought Ella, a cabaret dancer who lived for years in Paris, would be a bad influence. When Carrie arrives, the elderly Ella immediately insists that she is not moving anywhere. Ella turns out to be full of surprises. She has severe, mysterious facial scars, for one. She has a man named Jack living there with her, for another. Perhaps craziest of all, she has lots of pictures and books by poet Langston Hughes, who it turns out was her cousin—and Carrie’s father’s cousin as well. Langston and Carrie’s dad didn’t get along, unfortunately. As Carrie desperately tries to pack some of the woman’s things into the bags she brought, Ella offers hints and anecdotes about her past—and draws a few out of her visitor as well. But what is this mysterious gift that Ella supposedly has? Well, in Ella’s words, Carrie will have to earn it.Skeeter’s prose is as smooth and confident as Ella herself: “I saw that Jack’s cane was on the sofa and he was leaning on Ella. They were dancing jerkily, as fast as their old legs would let them. Actually, they kept up with the beat very well. In that living room with its many decades-old artifacts, they could have been dancing in Paris or Harlem in their heyday.” The novel cleverly mourns the lost world of Jazz Age Harlem, as represented by an apartment full of artifacts that is literally about to be knocked down. The supporting characters—including Hughes, a ghost who casts his iconic shadow over all the rest—are well drawn, and Carrie is a relatable and likable protagonist. The roles that Carrie and Ella play in regard to each other—Carrie wanted to be a dancer herself, and Ella is essentially a fairy godmother—are perhaps a bit too neat, and readers will quickly surmise where the story is headed. That said, the author is a capable writer, and the world that she creates is evocative and amusing enough for readers to happily linger in for the book’s breezy, 206-page length.
A family tale that skillfully brings the magic of the Harlem Renaissance into the present.