In her new novel Half a Heart, Rosellen Brown uses the experiences of one woman to examine the dual themes of motherhood and race. Brown, noted author of Before and After and Civil Wars allows the reader a deep look at the interior terrain of Miriam Vener, a beleaguered woman confronting the responsibilities of parenting and the challenges of racial prejudice.
A former civil rights activist, Miriam has seen her life change in many ways some subtle, some obvious. When she was a young woman involved in the intense Mississippi civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, Miriam possessed a liberal, humanist outlook that opened her to a forbidden affair with a black professor at a local college. That controversial liaison produced a daughter who is relinquished to her father after a heated child custody dispute.
Now 18 years later, Miriam is married to a wealthy ophthalmologist in the upper-middle-class suburbs of Houston, with children and an aging mother preoccupied with death. The staid, comfortable life of affluence has sparked feelings of ambivalence and tension, fostering her desire to reconnect with the daughter she gave up years before. The novel soars as Miriam seeks out her African-American daughter, Veronica, who is a troubling mix of sensitivity, intelligence, conflicting emotions, and racial pride. Brown pulls no punches in her insights into the character of these two women separated by both race and class. Veronica wants to make her mother pay dearly for her long absence from her life, and some of the book's most potent scenes occur when the pair clash in their emotional tug of war.
Through her reunion with her daughter, Miriam gets to reassess her roles as mother, wife, and former activist, as well as examine the themes of identity, intimacy, and femininity. While Brown's astute observations about the value of wealth and influence are noteworthy, her views on love and race are especially fascinating. Describing the courtship between Eljay and Miriam during the perilous times of the civil rights movement, she writes: She was amazed at what she saw: that, no part of them forbidden, they were beautiful together, they were remaking the whole ugly world, and yes, he was right, she had not failed to notice their differences. It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the novel's complex themes and its many heart-wrenching scenes and miss the book's low-key humanity and gentle honesty.
The resolution of the novel's overlapping conflicts is handled with delicacy, care, and precision. This is the power and grace of Brown's most introspective, accomplished work to date.