Thursday, September 2, 2021

Book 300: If Beale Street Could Talk

 

"The world sees what it wishes to see, or, when the chips are down, what you tell it to see: it does not wish to see who, or what, or why you are."

Dates read: March 5-9, 2019

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

I thought I understood the world at 16...didn't we all? When you grow up in a small homogenous town, things seem so simple. I was so sure that affirmative action was bad, undocumented immigrants getting deported were getting what they deserved, and that everyone who was in jail belonged there. Since I held those kinds of beliefs, I've left my hometown. I've lived life, gained experiences. I am about to be 36, and the person who thought that way feels so long ago.

My AP English course was the only one that exposed me to African-American literature, and I wish that curriculum had included James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk. Reading it at 33 was powerful. Reading it in high school would have been that much more so. The story it tells is simple yet indelible. Tish and Fonny are teenagers who've grown up in the same neighborhood in New York City their whole lives. They've always been friends, but as they approach adulthood they both come to realize that their bond is love. They're happy, looking forward to starting their lives together, scoping out a loft in which they can live and has space for Fonny to pursue his dreams of being a sculptor. But then there's an accusation: a woman claims that Fonny raped her, and he's jailed pending trial.

Shortly after he's sent away, Tish discovers she's pregnant. Her warm, loving family accepts the news with joy, as does Fonny's father, but his primly religious mother and sisters disapprove. The urgency of Fonny's plight escalates enormously: Tish and her unborn child need him home. Their loved ones undertake extraordinary efforts to gain his release as Tish gets closer to her due date, and she reminisces about how they found themselves in this predicament.

I tend to find, in stories about young lovers, that the lovers themselves are often the least interesting part of it, and it was true for me here as well. While Tish and Fonny's story and the forces that play upon them are powerful, neither of them is an especially vivid character. They're sweet, their love is pure, and it's easy to feel outraged about the injustices visited upon them. Thankfully, Baldwin has surrounded them with an engaging supporting cast. The way Tish's family mobilizes to secure a lawyer for Fonny, and her mother's trip to Puerto Rico to try to find the woman who accused him in particular, create intrigue and drama that keep the story moving forward.

I'll be honest, though: the plot, as thought-provoking and heartwrenching as it can be, isn't the main attraction here. It's the writing. This was my first Baldwin book, and I fell in love with his powerful, lyrical prose. It's not dense, but it is a book that encourages you to read it slowly...each word is chosen with obvious care, and the way he strings them together is masterful. The book may be relatively short, but there's a lot there. I can already tell this is one I'll return to and be able to get even more out of with subsequent readings. I would recommend this book widely, it's beautifully written with a message no less relevant today than when it was published.

One year ago, I was reading: Yakuza Moon

Two years ago, I was reading: Tower

Three years ago, I was reading: Paint It Black

Four years ago, I was reading: Boys and Girls Together

Five years ago, I was reading: Life Itself

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