Underground Book Reviews: Second Chances

Review from UBR:

The novel started very strongly for me, with the opening scene immediately commanding both my attention and my empathy. A black mother listens at the back of a crowded school hall, while bigoted white parents take to the stage in turn, to voice their concerns about the prospect of students from a deprived area being given access to their school. While they wring their hands and come up with various reasons why this is all a bad idea, the mother’s two daughters are listening in obvious discomfort. I felt uncomfortable myself, cringing on their behalf. Things seem to work out for this family for a while though. The younger daughter, Kenni, gets into the school, and before long the white parents realize they had very little to be upset about. Meanwhile, the older daughter Nicole is accepted as an intern by white lawyer Richard, after his wife politely points out that he only ever seems to hire white people. Things start to unravel when Kenni is then told she has to go back to her old school on a technicality, and whilst in the middle of trying to fight this decision, the mother goes missing.  The novel quickly then propels the older daughter Nicole into main character status as she is forced to accept responsibility for her younger siblings, get Kenni back into the good school, and find out what happened to their mother, all while trying to work, go to college and keep on top of things as an intern.

At this point, despite a little too much ‘telling’ every now and then by the author, I was enjoying the story very much. I believed in the characters, and wanted everything to work out for them. Nicole is a great protagonist, and it was interesting to see the journey Richard went on as well. On the surface he has a perfect life as a successful lawyer, but it turns out he has his own demons too. These come to light when his estranged brother turns up asking him to come and visit the rehab clinic he has set up. It is obvious that the brothers have chosen very different paths in life, but why is that, what does Richard need to face from his past, and can they be reconciled once he has?

As Nicole struggles to find out what happened to her mother, Richard tries very clumsily to help her, whilst dealing with his own issues. As I mentioned before, every now and then I felt like there was too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’ in the story. However, it was not enough to irritate me, and as the book was otherwise well written, with great characters and dialogue, I was able to get past it. On the plus side, this book is a well thought out and executed examination of modern class and race divisions in America. It has believable characters, who you begin to really care about.

On the down side, the book was too short for me. I felt like the section where Richard tries to counsel a young alcoholic called Ben at the clinic went on too long, and the book seemed to end too abruptly after this. This part was well written and interesting, don’t get me wrong, but it seemed to take everything off on a tangent, away from Richard and his character. This would have been fine if the book had been longer, as there would have been the time to get to know this new young character, to identify and empathize with him. I could see how his own personal tragedies had an impact on Richard coming to terms with his own, however, I just couldn’t help feeling a little short changed that the book ended so soon after this. It was not a poor ending, nor was it unrealistic, I just felt like it came too soon. It was as if by the time I had gotten to understand the characters and learned their back story, it was all tied up and over. It is, however, a credit to the author that I felt like this about his characters. They were too good, and I simply wanted more.

On the whole, this was an enjoyable and well written novel. It examines timeless themes of social inequality, prejudice, and the very human urge to keep hoping and trying for that second chance.