One of the odder things about art vs. life is that synchronicities, coincidences and generation-spanning family patterns occur in real life that one would never believe in fiction unless the writer is exceptionally skilled. In her latest novel, October Suite, writer Maxine Clair displays the required talent as she deals with the fortunes and misfortunes of the Brown family, particularly October, the book's conflicted heroine.
The novel takes place in the 1950s Midwest, where October not the name she was born with, but one she adopted as a tribute to her mother works as a school teacher. Having striven all her life to be a proper Negro lady in order to distance herself from an exceptionally fraught legacy, she is nevertheless seduced and abandoned by the married handyman at her boarding house. Times being what they were, the disgraced October takes refuge with her sister Vergie, her husband Gene and the two maiden aunts who raised the girls after tragic circumstances took their parents from them. When her son David is born, October, resentful over the failure of her affair and possibly suffering from postpartum depression, hands him over to Vergie, who possessive and loving can't tolerate the thought of anyone ever telling him the truth. From then on, Clair quietly uncovers the real story behind the sisters' upbringing and the recurring patterns that have both blessed and cursed their family.
October is a fascinating character, tidy but hankering after pleasure, a bit selfish and a bit rigid but essentially kind-hearted. She is jealous of Vergie's relationship with her son but grateful to her, obviously intelligent but just as obviously dumb when it comes to her love life. Vergie, unable to have children of her own, is all unleashed maternal passion, ready to take on her sister if it means sparing David pain. The minor characters are also well drawn, particularly the maiden aunts Frances and Maude, both strong, funny and insistent about their own version of the family myth; Leon the jazz musician October finally realizes she's in love with; and Foots, Leon's grizzled mentor who has a past of his own.
The award-winning author of the novel Rattlebone, Clair evokes a time and place beautifully; a snowfall that begins in the morning and buries a tall fence by lunchtime; 78s played on Victrolas; Negro teachers' clubs; chenille bedspreads in a boarding house room; the cut of a shirtwaist dress. The sad and lovely story of October Suite lingers in the mind like the first hint of fall in the Midwest.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.