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Finding a groove // But sure they can be tiresome


By Connie Briscoe

HarperCollins, $23

Reviewed by Erika N. Duckworth

A friend once told me that she couldn't bring herself to buy Connie Briscoe's first novel, Sisters and Lovers, because the primary-colored book cover reminded her too much of Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale. Simply put, she didn't want to read another attractively packaged piece of fluff that critics would be too quick to hail as "the contemporary black woman's story."

If only Briscoe's disappointing second book, Big Girls Don't Cry, did have the breezy, style-over-substance entertainment value of some of McMillan's work. At least that would have helped to gloss over the predictable, meandering plot and shallow revelations in this novel, billed as one black woman's odyssey from the 1960s to the present.

We first meet Naomi Patrice Jefferson on the brink of adolescence in Washington, D.C., living with her loving but strict parents and a know-it-all older brother. Naomi has all the familiar pre-teen concerns: boys, getting permission to wear pantyhose and makeup and avoiding a beating from the hard girls at school. She also longs to fit in with her glamorous fellow ballet students _ girls with fair complexions, long hair and prestigious addresses on the Gold Coast, Washington's historic upper class black neighborhood.

But Naomi's race, especially in 1963, brings with it a more complex set of worries. Her first brush with unadulterated racism _ a verbal assault by a carload of white boys while she is on her way to a piano lesson _ hits hard. Neither her mother's advice to ignore it, nor her brother's reminder that big girls don't cry, can erase the sting of being called a n__- for the first time.

"Before Naomi could help it, she was all choked up and could hardly breathe. She knew what the word meant, or at least she thought she did. But that was the first time anyone had said it to her face. She wanted to run and hide. She wanted to punch somebody. But she couldn't do either."

The novel's turning point comes as Joshua, Naomi's brother, is killed in a car accident on the way to a civil rights demonstration at college. Angry, rudderless and confused, Naomi seeks solace away at school in Atlanta. And, unfortunately, this is where the story begins to lose its steam and its credibility.

Will Ralph, the seductive medical student with the red Sting Ray and no interest in the movement, turn out to be bad news? The only mystery here is why supposedly level-headed Naomi hangs onto him for several chapters _ even after catching him with another woman.

Will Naomi be passed over for a deserved promotion for a less-qualified white man, spurring her to chase her longstanding dream of owning her own business? Will Dean, the handsome, socially conscious brother, eventually return from Africa to sweep Naomi off her feet?

This book is for the two or three people who don't know the answers to these questions. Worse still are Naomi's glib observations on class and racial issues.

On Naomi's newfound (and seemingly overnight) appreciation of darker-skinned men, Briscoe writes: "She hadn't been as open to them. Now, though, she'd be as willing to seek out good-looking dark-skinned babes as she would the light ones."

On her status as a high-ranking black female executive, Naomi muses: "Reaching this perch above the masses had been a long hard fight. The powers-that-be at (her company) were all middle-aged white men, used to doing things a certain way. They weren't used to giving chocolate babes real power."

There are some promising nuggets along the way, but the whole thing wraps up in an ending that is far too neat and perfect to be believed. In light of Naomi's long and unwieldy journey, that may be the book's most puzzling development.

Erika N. Duckworth is a staff writer for the Times.