St Martin’s Griffin, $12.95, ISBN 0-312-30069-7
Multigenerational Women’s Fiction, 2002
Rhythms, Donna Hill’s big time mainstream debut, is a disappointment. It is a story of three generations of African-American women, but as the story progresses, it relies too much on trite Hallmark movie clichés that ultimately dumbs down the whole story. There is always a charm in this author’s writing style that appeals to me, but in the end, Rhythms seems more like an overwrought “Forgive above reason!” greeting card than anything else.
This story starts in 1927, when young Cora Harvey falls in love with town doctor David Mackey and dreams of life as a singer in the Big City, away from the small town of Ruddell which is all she knows all her life. When she loses her parents, she leaves town – and David – only to learn that life out there in the big city is really nasty, especially when racism and crime collide. Like a young lamb caught in a crossfire between ravenous wolves, she can only come to a bad end.
She comes home to David, pregnant, and Emma is born as a result of Cora’s rape by a white rich scum. Emma looks white, causing David and the rest of the town to turn their back on mother and daughter. In a book that pulls no punches when it comes to describing racism against black people, it is perverse irony that this reverse racism is never addressed and quickly skimmed over.
The book also tells the story of Emma and Emma’s daughter Parris. Emma grows up resenting her mother who couldn’t get over her rape and the townfolks who treated her like dirt, and she leaves Cora to confront her father in the Big Bad City. Along the way, she falls for a white guy who believes her to be white. What is a girl to do, especially after she marries her love and gives birth to Parris? Parris, alas, takes after Cora in looks, if you know what I mean, and one look at Parris will reveal the heritage Emma wants so badly to keep hidden.
Just when things threaten to get interesting (just as Cora’s story threatens to do the same), the author fast forwards to Parris’ story. This is when everything goes wrong. Look, it’s Arabesque Cliché Du Jour all over again – catfights, evil other ho’s, love your granddaddy who never apologizes for dumping your grandmother in her time of need no matter what (but make your mother apologize like hell in the same time), and other really, really annoyingly pedestrian plot devices pop up like a bad case of acne.
And oh yeah, all three women make up. They are friends again after one – or is it two? – chapter of rushed reconciliation. What bring about their epiphany? What makes Cora realize that she has been wrong in blaming Emma when she should have been strong for her daughter? What makes Emma change her mind about Parris? The author seems to expect me to accept that it’s some innate “maternal” function of these women to automatically experience some preprogrammed epiphany that will lead them to kiss and make up (preferably by the last chapter).
Then it’s curtains. That’s it, folks. Three women, their characters barely developed, trapped in a story that just stops dead whenever things threaten to be interesting and go out of the safe Hallmark path. Not exactly smooth sailing, Rhythms is a rushed clippety-cloppety ride down a bumpy path of a plot, marred by too many potholes of trite showy melodrama (lots of italicized excerpts of letters, people) and too quick and convenient resolutions. This book just skims the surface, leaving barely a ripple in its wake. Not that it is a bad read – I find myself reading it in one sitting all the way to the ungodly hours of the morning. But by skimming through issues that could make this book a powerful, meaty read (raising a child of mixed-race in a colored population, growing up as a child of mixed-race, the savage cruelty of a small town community, et cetera) in favor of easy, cheap sentiments, this author isn’t doing herself or me, the reader, any favor. Ultimately, I can’t help but to feel cheated.