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When Did You Stop Loving Me: A Novel Hardcover – May 25, 2004
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For Angela Davis Brown, the heroine of Veronica Chambers's debut novel, When Did You Stop Loving Me, life can be divided into two parts: before and after her mother disappears on an otherwise ordinary day in 1979. Left in the care of her father, a magician who drives a Mercedes yet can't afford much more than an omelet or two a day, Angela must navigate the waters of young womanhood on her own, save the occasional appearance of her father's numerous girlfriends or her abusive Aunt Mona. Along the way, this precocious sixth-grader must grapple with the inevitable yet unanswerable need to understand how a mother could abandon her child to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood, to Angela a place a world away from Brooklyn.
Chambers paints a vivid image of the political and socio-economic climate of New York in the early 1980s. The most entertaining and heartfelt scenes of this novel come when Angela describes her parents riveting admiration for Assata Shakur's escape from prison, or her father's sense of pure joy at meeting Muhammad Ali after performing at a PBS telethon to benefit the United Negro College Fund. Where the author falls short is in capturing the essence of Angela's grief; at no point does the reader feel any true investment in Angela's emotional or mental fate. Insincere lines like "My father was a magician, but Mommy was the real Houdini" do little to align the reader with this young girl's plight. Even at the end, when Chambers offers us a glimpse of Angela's adulthood, we feel no attachment to the character, no sense of triumph in her achievements and accomplishments. In fact, it is easier to identify with Teddo, Angela's proud, stubborn father, simply because he seems more genuine. His anger and grief at his wife's disappearance are palpable (" He knelt down beside me and rested his head on my lap. His head shook and my hands trembled. I tried to still him. He cried so long that the legs of my pajamas were wet through.") while Angela's pain seems contrived and detached.
When Did You Stop Loving Me is a noble first effort, but Chambers, who has achieved success as a journalist and a critic, would benefit from abandoning clichés in favor of deeper character exploration. --Gisele Toueg
In Chambers' highly acclaimed memoir, Mama's Girl (1996), her dad took off to try to make it as a ventriloquist, leaving her to live first with her angry mother and then with him. This exquisite first novel, also set in Brooklyn in the late 1970s, reads like a memoir, only this time it's mother who leaves and is never heard from again. Eleven-year-old Angela speaks with lyrical simplicity about her grief ("I came home from school and Mommy wasn't there"); her bewildered attempts to fit into her magician dad's world; and her anger that he wants her to be his assistant, "part doll, part circus monkey." Her mother left behind only her straightening comb and a toothbrush, "pink with splayed bristles." Best of all is the unsentimental picture of the loving, messed-up single-parent dad. His rants about racism tire Angela, until a white spectator asks him why he doesn't make himself white. Chambers doesn't overdo the magician metaphors, but she makes real the disappearing acts in a world of mirrors and knives. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
WHEN DID YOU STOP LOVING ME is Veronica Chambers debut novel about a young black girl growing up in the 70's and early 80's whose mother decides to leave her family without a trace. It's not only a story of a girl's coming to terms with her mother's disappearance, but also a look back at an era that started with the end of the Vietnam War and the fight for Civil Rights.
Angela Davis Brown's life revolved around the love she had for her parents. Melanie is a beautiful woman who at one time had aspirations to becoming someone famous, perhaps a model or an actress. Angela's father is a professional magician, working at nightclubs and private parties. With his lack of income, her mother is the breadwinner of the family, and Melanie often berated Teddo for not bringing in enough money. When Melanie disappears, life goes on and Teddo does his best to bring up Angela on his own, trying to bring in more money and giving Melanie the sense of family she needs. He doesn't always succeed, but his heart is in the right place, teaching Melanie about life and about her black heritage.
The story is told in flashbacks, using images from the seventies to describe Teddo's convictions of a black man who is trying to survive in a white man's world. Although this story is about Angela, the story about Teddo and Melanie helps round out Angela's search for the answers she needs to explain why her mother abandoned them.
I especially enjoyed the references made to the 1970's, reminscing about the era that I grew up in. But I also enjoyed reading about these characters. I found myself laughing as Angela's father warns her about the bad influences of watching shows like the Brady Bunch and Partridge Family, subservice white man shows that taught kids all sorts of bad things. He didn't want his daughter to be like that! His aspirations for her were to go to upper class white private schools and fitting in with that same crowd. Although his pride in being black was always apparent, he also had a need to be cultured, to be accepted by the upper class white population. He also taught her the gift of reading, and tried to show her that education could be acquired from simply reading a book.
I really enjoyed WHEN DID YOU STOP LOVING ME. It was not what I had expected at all, although I cannot say at this point what I was expecting. After reading this book, I felt a satisfaction that comes from reading a good book, short and sweet, yet it packed in plenty for such a short novel. I am looking forward to more by Veronica Chambers.
Angela is loved by both of her parents. Her father is a magician, a very nontraditional trade for someone who is helping to support a family. With his occasional gigs at parties and clubs, her mother is the breadwinner, which isn't saying much. Her parents argue over their finances constantly, especially since her father Teddo refuses to get a "real" job. The focus of WHEN DID YOU STOP LOVING ME, however, starts at the point in time when Angela's mother, Melanie, decides not to return home one day, leaving no note or explanation. Told through flashbacks, the story deals with Angela's coming to terms with Melanie's disappearance, and how she and her father pick up the pieces and move on.
Teddo, who never played a real paternal role in Angela's life, is now forced to be both mother and father to her. Scenes of him trying to do her hair are very touching, as he sets out to prove to his daughter that they don't need Melanie to survive. Christmas is a stressful affair, with Angela desperate to have things "normal," but her father does not cooperate. Angela now starts going to the clubs with her father, since he can't leave her alone at home while he is out working, and she gets a glimpse of a different version of Teddo --- someone who was never revealed to her until now. He's a confident man who knows his audience, and the audience adores him. He is in his element. It is where he belongs.
The story is told in Angela's voice, and the reader gets inside her head as she tries to make sense of her mother's disappearance while trying to move on. A traumatic scene involves Angela and her father as they discuss what may have happened to Melanie. Teddo is very calm as he imagines Melanie living the high-life in Hollywood, and says that they don't need her and that they can live without her. Teddo's lifelong dream is to be an ambassador for an African nation and to live among the African people, and he starts to talk about this dream when he suddenly breaks down and cries. It's been a few months since Melanie had left them, and Angela notes that this is the first time he has displayed any real emotion.
As Angela grows older, she tries to come to terms with her mother's disappearance, feeling at times that she was to blame. It is a typical child's reaction to a parent who is no longer in his/her life, and Angela does her best to understand why Melanie would want to leave her only daughter.
This reviewer loved the writing style that makes this story flow. Beautifully written, the words are concise and to the point. A book like this may or may not be appreciated by someone younger than those who remember the 1970s. But one would think that after reading WHEN DID YOU STOP LOVING ME, people will find themselves either reminiscing about this era or wanting to understand the many references Chambers makes to this time period. Comparisons are often made to African American icons of this day: Muhammad Ali, Isaac Hayes, Cicely Tyson... the list goes on and on. Readers will find themselves smiling as they are brought back to this era of huge Afros, boom boxes, Jimmy Carter, and disco.
But the main draw to this novel is the story of young Angela Davis Brown --- how she grows up without her mother and her relationship with her father. It is a touching novel that will live in the hearts of those who read it. Highly recommended.
--- Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton
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