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When young Adelaide Abraham’s parents are fighting, humiliating themselves in front of company or ignoring her, Cat — Addy’s haunting, menacing imaginary companion, a slinking shadow of her anxiety — appears. Her mother, an actress with a frozen smile, and her father, a Ph.D. and once-revered writer, can’t see much past their own egos, and they certainly can’t fathom their wild, mangy-haired child. It’s not until Louise, a regal black woman from the Caribbean, arrives to keep house for the Abrahams that Addy, relishing some unbridled attention, can chase Cat, and her parents, away.
On the day that Louise arrives, Addy is deliberately cutting herself with a broken glass over the kitchen sink. Louise enters the scene grandly, comforts Addy, then teases her, “What yah doing the dishes for? Dat’s not yah job.” Louise seems to be the first person who sees Addy clearly. She doesn’t treat her like an animal that needs to be tamed.
In “All the Finest Girls,” Alexandra Styron’s first novel, compressed dialogue like this unlocks the characters and keeps the story moving at a graceful yet probing pace. The chapters’ settings alternate between the island of St. Clair, where the adult Addy travels to attend Louise’s funeral and confront Louise’s family, and the Connecticut countryside of Addy’s childhood. Styron’s characters have the star power of beloved great actors in modern cameo roles — you find yourself yearning to see them move across the screen one more time. Louise, in particular, glides in and out with an incomparable arsenal of emotion and power.
Styron expertly navigates the mysterious caverns of a distraught child’s pain and lets Addy grow up with much of her idiosyncratic aura intact. At 32, Addy is a New York art restorer in search of a fuller understanding of the woman who saved her from her parents’ selfishness. In Louise’s sons, Derek and Phillip, she believes she sees her real kin. Soon, not surprisingly, she’s forced to realize that Louise’s life was about much more than raising a crazy little white girl. “Ya tink she woulda wanted yah here?” Derek finally shouts at her. “She wouldna given a shit. Don’t yah get it? She was paid for caring for yah!” Yet even that truth is complicated. Addy discovers that when Louise came to starched, foreign Connecticut she left behind a profound anguish of her own. In visiting St. Clair in order to bandage up her own family’s wounds, Addy shares more with the older woman than at first it seems.
Styron is straightforward about the shades of white, brown and black that divide her characters, and on this topic she’s accomplished something remarkable. Louise’s differences — “no one has skin that is dark like hers, no one has a nose so broad,” the child Addy thinks — don’t become a subject of curiosity for Addy until she and Louise visit a church together, and the girl discovers that in a place where everyone is supposedly equal before God, Louise somehow isn’t. Addy prides herself on her innate acceptance of Louise, but as her memories come into focus, old transgressions and betrayals come to light.
Despite the weightiness of her themes, Styron’s tone is never heavy-handed. She doesn’t downplay the tragic enormity of racism’s crimes. Color becomes a way into this story of the tentative exchanges shared by people tangled up in worlds they don’t fully understand.
Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.More Suzy Hansen.