Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Trading Dreams At Midnight

Trading Dreams at Midnight by Diane McKinney-Whetstone

Spanning three generations of women, Trading Dreams at Midnight is a story about the way family relationships shape identity, and how one can and can't escape them.

Most of the story focuses on Nan, a woman who comes to Philadelphia in the late 1940s to find work as a seamstress, and falls in love with a man who brings her pain and joy in almost equal measure, and on Neena, the eldest of Nan's two granddaughters. However, the character at the book's center is one who is largely absent.

This is Freeda, Nan's beautiful, charismatic, and mentally ill daughter. After giving birth to two girls, Freeda twists in and out of their lives, leaving them with Nan during her unpredictable dark periods. Her presence is both exciting and terrifying. Sometimes she's lighting up rooms with her smile and painting the walls of her apartment bright pink, and others, she's hearing voices and compulsively eating box after box of Argo starch. When the girls are adolescents, she leaves for good, and disappears completely.

While Nan loves her granddaughters, she's washed her hands of Freeda, and encourages the girls to do the same. This is easy for Tish, Freeda's youngest daughter, who aligns herself with Nan, goes to college, and lands a perfect job and perfect man, never once looking back.

For Neena, though, finding Freeda becomes a lifelong obsession. She drops out of college, and spends the next fifteen years, tracking down any clue, any rumored sighting, no matter how vague or shady. As she looks for her mother, Neena pays the bills by hustling married men and shaking them down.

When Tish is hospitalized during her sixth month of pregnancy and risks losing the baby, Neena returns to Philadelphia, only to be told by Nan that her presence would probably do Tish more harm than good. Nan knows she shouldn't play favorites, but she's never been able to help herself when it comes to Tish.

Eventually, McKinney-Whetstone reunites these characters, but the journey that gets them there, and the changes they go through in the process are more important.

It's a compelling story with richly drawn characters (even McKinney-Whetstone's supporting characters are fully realized and immediately recognizable).

If you like...: frank depictions of families dealing with mental illness like 72 Hour Hold by Bebe Moore Campbell or African-American fiction with an old-school feel like The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor, this book is for you.

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