on May 3, 2011
Silver Sparrow is a powerful and unforgettable book, full of soul and intelligence and is Tayari Jones's finest work which is saying something given the beauty of her earlier books. This is a novel where you know, from the first page, what the major tensions of the narrative are. You also get a sense of how the story will end. This is not to suggest that this novel is without its surprises or complexities; you will find both in this book. Nonetheless, Silver Sparrow is a book where how the writer leads the reader to an inevitable ending matters most. Normally, this approach of revealing so much of what is at stake in the early going might seem like a prescription for failure but such is not the case in what is a remarkable novel. Silver Sparrow is thoroughly engaging and although there is so much intense emotion driving the story forward, that emotion is expertly controlled, never becoming indulgent or melodramatic. We all come to reading for different reasons. I mostly read to be moved and engaged; with this book I very much was. I haven't been able to stop reading this book since I got my hands on a copy.
Silver Sparrow is the story of two daughters, Dana Lynn Yarboro and Chaurisse Witherspoon, the bigamist father they share, James Witherspoon, his might-as-well-be brother and shadow Raleigh, and the mothers of the two girls, Gwendolyn and Laverne. The backdrop is black, middle class Atlanta during the 1980s but there's also a lot of really interesting and difficult historical context brought into the novel to help explain how the adults, in particular, came to such a complicated pass. The writing is subtle, elegant and the exceptional attention to detail really elevates this book.
I also appreciated how sensitively and honestly the writing detailed the intimate and complex inner lives of teenage girls--their hopes and insecurities and fears are detailed so nicely. As a recovering teenage girl, I found both Dana and Chaurisse eminently relatable. Chaurisse, for example, has created her own taxonomy for girls and there's a real bittersweetness to how she describes "silver" or pretty, popular girls and where she stands in relation to those girls.
The pacing is another strong element of Silver Sparrow. Given that the novel is told in two parts, first from Dana's point of view then from Chaurisse's point of view, I wondered how the story could possibly be resolved effectively and how all the tension built in the first part could be capitalized on in the second part. In fact, when I first realized the novel had a two-part structure I was actually kind of irritated because I thought we were going back to the beginning just when I was completely invested but I have to tell you, this novel is smartly written and controlled and there are many craft lessons to be learned in reading Silver Sparrow. The second part of the novel complements the first part really nicely and in its own way, Chaurisse's story picks up right where we have diverged from Dana's while also giving us a clear sense of how she got to where and who she is. By the end of the novel, I literally could not turn the pages fast enough. More than once I found myself holding my breath. I know a book is damn good when I stop breathing. Silver Sparrow is, by far, the best book I've read this year and I return to it often. You won't regret getting your hands on this book.
on October 4, 2011
This book is about people who have done well in their businesses, but their personal lives are train wrecks.
I guess every fiction book (or diet book, but that's another story), from Shakespear and Tolstoy on down is about people whose lives are in some way train wrecks - or you would have no plot, no conflict. So why were these train wrecks so unsatisfying?
The book was very well written, Dana and Chaurisse were compelling, sympathetic and well drawn, the story full of twists and turns and an original plot building up to a final confrontation, and the dialogue especially good. So why didn't this work for me?
This book felt like the kind of friend's divorce I'm sure everybody has seen - when it first erupts you're sympathetic, fascinated, supportive and frankly kinda nosy. But say the friend never grows and moves on, but continues to have the same fights with the ex for the next twenty years (with different incidents, but basically the same fights), and after awhile it gets dull and repetitious and when the subject comes up you zone out and while you still may make sympathetic noises when she talks, you're sympathy is pretty much dead.
Here, the train just kept wrecking, over and over, and the characters just kept having the same conflicts and fights and issues, and never seemed to grow or develop. Despite all the drama nothing really seemed to happen- and in the end, the daughters appear to be essentially replaying the train wrecks of their parents' lives, with a few changes in the details.
Sometimes this can be a very powerful statement (Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises) but here it just got tiresome. I kept thinking this novel begged for some kind of growth, change, or development in the characters, but it just didn't happen.
So despite the good writing, for me in the end the book fell flat.
on June 1, 2011
Have you ever wondered what life would be like growing up in a family of bigamists? The situation seems unthinkable, but it happens. I'm not referring to a strange polygamist cult with unusual beliefs and an alternate lifestyle. I'm speaking of ordinary folks just like you and me, except that they live in secret and hide from the ones they love.
These are people with children, jobs and commitments, upstanding citizens in nearly every sense of the word, the only difference being that they sustain a strange, dual family system --- a system that inherently requires deception and is forced upon the children. It is done in order to preserve the daily harmony and protect the feelings of others, yet as the psychological strain builds (and we know it must), it becomes all-too clear that the ones who are hurt are always the innocents.
Bigamy is the subject of this unusual story told in SILVER SPARROW, covering the life of a bigamist husband and dual father. James Witherspoon is a middle-aged African American man who has lived his lie for two decades. His story begins innocently with his daughter's recollections of her own illegitimacy. Dana describes her parents' affair in full detail, including what it's been like for her through the years. She has been kept a secret all her life. Dana's mother originally confided their story to her daughter years ago, telling of her affair directly and honestly. Dana understands their reasons and relates to the longings of a lonely heart. She believes it happened out of the blue, and though it was certainly a dishonest act, she recognizes that it wasn't premeditated at all. It seemed to happen very naturally, though resulted in a pairing that could not be recognized and would lead to a life of disasters and hurts.
Dana's tale of her father's two wives and lives is a sad one, though compelling. This is a realistic story about deception, created by the needs of flawed people. The reality of James's life, years down the road, is a collection of lies and daily betrayals, with James being insistent on keeping both families and loving them all. His illegitimate wife Gwen seems to love him every bit as much as his public one, and his two daughters both adore him. Dana, however, is naturally bitter about being kept secret, only seeing her father occasionally and just at home. Yet, strangely, knowing her father's dirty secrets seems to make both Dana and her mother feel superior; they claim their victories where they can.
Amid this dishonesty and treachery is a touching story of two innocents: the sweet daughters who are the products of James's love. These girls only want to be loved and valued, and though Dana does love her parents, she can see the trap they're in. Because James's families live in the same small town in Alabama, they are bound to run into each other sooner or later. While Dana and her mother have been expressly forbidden to associate or speak to James's legitimate family, Dana has become intensely curious and jealous, making her brave enough to finally approach them.
There are some shocking realities to the odd situations of a bigamist family, and one of these is the strange notion that these families are mirror images of each other. Though James's girls and wives are physically different, they do live with the same man and share his bloodlines. This gives them certain similarities, especially in their emotional makeup, and leads to a situation when the girls will meet.
SILVER SPARROW is a touching story that will leave audiences identifying with all the lost children of the world. Though the subject seems heavy, Tayari Jones's third novel (following LEAVING ATLANTA and THE UNTELLING) really does read quickly and easily. The characters are all amazingly relatable and lifelike, and readers will definitely love the two daughters. The book will also satisfy any curiosities you might have about the psychology of bigamy.
--- Reviewed by Melanie Smith
on May 3, 2011
This is one novel that took my breath away--and Jones has been getting major praise for it as well, everywhere from O, the Oprah Magazine to Poets & Writers--as well as being the Indie #1 pick. It's all deserved. Gorgeously written, this literate, haunting novel tells the story of a bigamist and the two daughters he has from two different families. A novel about the secrets we keep, the lies we tell, and the bonds we both break and form, Silver Sparrow is just a knockout.
on August 18, 2011
This review is unfair and not professional because Tayari Jones has produced a fine novel with good, strong, memorable characters, some of whom should be kicked in the seat of the pants. I just didn't like the book. Didn't like the people most of the time, didn't like the plot (when there was one), or anything else. It is fine writing and produced a longer discussion in our book discussion group than anything else we've read, I think, although nobody else liked it either. The people were so foolish and limited in their thinking, bound to their same old ways; their children would be forever suffering from the sins of the forebears.
The story is age old and not confined to people of any ethnos or color. A young boy goes farther with his even younger girl date than he ever meant to, with the help of alcohol, and she ends up pregnant. But he and his adopted brother declare to their outraged mother and to the girl that they are going to "make it right." So the teens marry, and the girl leaves school forever. The stronger, married, brother begins a chauffering business of their own, then meets another charming black woman and asks her to coffee. The rest is a repetition of a thousand such stories, and the man has essentially two families and two different daughters on his hands. He and his long suffering brother keep trying to "make it right," but the "line once writ cannot" be washed away by all the tears in the world. Not much new under this sun.
on June 23, 2011
Silver Sparrow was a decent read. I bought it after the author's interview on NPR. Although the storyline of the book started out strongly, it fizzled in the middle and especially near the ending. In other words, the beginning of the book was rather believable, but then quickly became unrealistic. I would have preferred that the characters, especially the "outside" daughter, be more developed, so that it centered on her life as a result of her situation. Instead, it slowly lingered on her perceived obsession with her present situation.
on May 15, 2013
This is obviously a "young adult" novel intended for maybe high school or junior high school age girls. This a weak story about two young girls with the same father and different mothers. The writing is passable but simplistic.
I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.
It is 1980s Atlanta and Dana Lynn Yarboro has a secret. Her father is a bigamist. James Witherspoon met Dana's mother, Gwen, when he was already married and fell in love with her. When Gwen became pregnant, James took her across state lines and married her illegally. Now, Dana and her mother are James' secret family. They know about his legitimate family but the legitimate family doesn't know about them. James married his legitimate wife as a teenager when she got pregnant. Although they lost that baby, years later they had a daughter named Chaurisse born four months after Dana. Dana watches Chaurisse from afar year after year envying her the public family life and advantages that she has. Although James works very hard to keep his two families separate, the girls almost inevitably meet and strike up a friendship. Chaurisse still doesn't know the truth but the friendship forces things to a heartbreaking climax and conclusion.'
This is a story about two African-American families in Atlanta during the 80s who face very different truths about their lives. The choices that James makes has far-reaching consequences for everyone involved as they confront inequalities on many different levels. The first part of the book tells the story from Dana's point-of-view. By the end of the first half, the reader is highly sympathetic to Dana and her mother. The second half of the book is told by Chaurisse and the change in perspective forces the reader to confront his/her view of the situation. Nothing is black and white. No one will escape this situation unscathed.
This book is highly readable. I couldn't put it down. I was fascinated by the situation and how everything was going to pan out. I was a little disappointed that the author didn't delve more into why each individual made the choices that they did. The story mostly stays on a surface level and the ending seemed to wrap up too quickly. I'm not sure I really believed in how everything turned out. However, the story really interesting and original and often heartbreaking.
BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. This is a very different kind of book with a truly original story to tell. I thought the characters of Dana and Chaurisse were both really well done. My only frustration was that I felt there was much more to tell. Especially in terms of the characters' motivations.
on May 6, 2011
I find it challenging to write about SILVER SPARROW because I know my own writing is not up to the task. I'd much rather press Tayari Jones' new novel into your hands and implore you to read it - it's amazing.
From the first line of Dana Lynn Yarboro's story, "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.", you know you are in for some serious drama.
And for some writers (and readers) that would be enough. A novel of he said-she said, terrible, done-me-wrongedness, and dramatic scenes and plot twists.
Tayari Jones is not that writer. As she tells us the story in Dana's voice we also are firmly placed in the time and setting - Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s. The grownups still remember Dr. Martin Luther King as a living presence. And good hair means many things even as augmented hair (what we call weaves), becomes an option for the women without "good hair."
We learn her parents' romantic history and see how complicated their emotional and real world is. Dana's mother keeps her not-legal husband's secret in exchange for having a once-a-week family life and care for her daughter. Dana keeps the secret, too, once she is taught to understand that she can't draw pictures of her daddy and his two families at school. But a teenager holding such a secret in a community where her friends cross over into her daddy's other life presents a dangerous situation.
Dana goes beyond "surveilling" her sister's life in clandestine operations with her mother, to making contact with her sister, without revealing who she is.
Dana and her mother are sympathetic characters. As a reader I loved them and wanted them to win, be rescued and be taken care of. I did wonder about her mother though - how much did she give up for not quite an even split on James. Then Jones gives us part two - Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon's story. She is James' other daughter. She is the second and legitimate one who has him in her house, with her mother, seven nights a week.
They do not have the knowledge that Dana and her mother have and as the girls become closer, I was anxious reading about their lives. What would happen to those teenage girls if everyone knew the secret? And does Dana really know what she's doing?
At a key point in the novel there was so much tension that I had to put it down, get up and walk around. I really wanted to keep reading, but I was so worried about the girls and their mothers. There was no easy winner or loser, just three households of broken hearts.
As this drama plays out, Jones gives us dialogue and descriptions that are beautiful. Dana and her mother are take care to think about and talk about who they are and how they are labeled (or would be if the secret was revealed). And there is an entire discussion in this novel about beauty, girlhood/womanhood and power. Only some of it takes place in Laverne's (Chaurisse's mother) beauty salon.
SILVER SPARROW is a wonderfully written book about a terrible web of family secrets and pain. And the emotional power of knowing.
As Dana tells us early in the novel, "Life, you see, is all about knowing things."
on May 4, 2011
This is the best kind of novel. You don't just read it but you feel like you know the people in it. I didn't want it to end. The story is a compelling one and it conveys the time and place in a special real way. The details feel just right and the characters will stay with you long after you finish the book. Don't miss this one!