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Review: Tayari Jones etches true portrait of black families that share a father in 'Silver Sparrow'

It may not match "Call me Ishmael," but one could do worse than opening a novel with "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist."

That's how Tayari Jones begins Silver Sparrow, her third novel, which chronicles two African-American families in Jones' native Atlanta.

James may be the common denominator joining those families, but Silver Sparrow belongs to his two daughters, born four months apart in 1969. The illegitimate Dana is older and tells her story first, but she is second in almost every other way as she grows up in the shadows with her mom, Gwen. James may visit them once a week for dinner. He clearly loves Dana, contributing toward her education from his earnings as a chauffeur, but his absence takes a toll on her self-esteem.

Beautiful and smart, Dana reaches her teen years fueled by insecurity and resentment that she is playing second fiddle to her sister Chaurisse, who has no idea Dana even exists, let alone any notion of the sacrifices Dana and Gwen make to preserve that blissful ignorance. Chaurisse gets her turn in the novel's second half. More secure than Dana, she speaks in a lighter and bouncier voice, and her often wise and good-natured humor contrasts starkly with Dana's unpredictable moods.

Jones' male characters get evenhanded treatment but nevertheless remain on the thin side. Even James is more of a plot device than a person, confirming Gwen's observation that "a man is just a man, and that's all we have to work with."

Her women, on the other hand, are all drawn well, from the sisters and their mothers to minor characters. The exchanges between mothers and daughters are often moving and ring true. Despite an overly tidy plot, so does the novel as a whole. Jones gives us permission to love all of its women, though they are flawed and often refuse to love one another. That's a recipe for great book club discussions.

Silver Sparrow

By Tayari Jones

Algonquin Books, 352 pages, $19.95

Review: Tayari Jones etches true portrait of black families that share a father in 'Silver Sparrow' 06/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 25, 2011 4:30am]
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