James Witherspoon marries Laverne when they are literally teenagers – he’s 17 and she’s 14; they are essentially forced into it when Laverne discovers that she is pregnant. Though Laverne loses the baby, but the two learn to genuinely love each other over time. Ten years later, James also marries Gwendolyn Yarboro after she becomes pregnant – but he refuses to leave Laverne. Gwendolyn gives birth to Dana just a few days after Laverne gives birth to Chaurisse. This book is about the emotional ramifications of James's bigamy.
The first half of the novel is narrated by Dana, who grows up knowing that she is part of a secret family. She and her mother are forbidden from having contact with Laverne and Chaurisse, but that doesn’t stop them from keeping watch from afar. Dana explains how she grew up resentful that she often couldn’t do something – such as attend a summer science camp or get a job at Six Flags – because Chaurisse had legitimacy and therefore first dibs. The second half of the novel is told from Chaurisse’s point of view. It deals less with the past than with the present, as the two girls – both seniors in high school – come in contact for the first time.
I loved Dana’s narrative voice and was sad to see it go as we got into the climax of the story. I found myself wondering why Jones chose to split the novel into two pieces instead of alternating points of view so we could greater understand Dana’s thought process in the second half. I liked the decision to balance Dana’s jealousy with Chaurisse’s relative naiveté – and I was particularly glad that Chaurisse was able to explore her mother’s reactions to the events of the story – but I ultimately didn’t enjoy Chaurisse as much as a narrator. I guess that speaks to what a good job Jones did developing two distinct voices to the two girls. This novel is heartbreaking and it will certainly stick with me, though I do wish the epilogue had gone into greater detail in describing what happened as the two girls became adults.