“The past had started erasing behind Sylvia like in a cartoon. Her life as a girl; the lives of her parents; her son; all disappearing as if they had never been. Giving up the pain and exclusion meant also losing years of her life. The trick was cutting out the bad like a tumor, hoping the nasty had not spread into the rest of your thinking. Cutting it out, but somehow managing to survive.”
In “No One is Coming to Save Us”, Stephanie Powell Watts uses the framework of “The Great Gatsby” to tell a modern story of a poor black town in the American South. This novel is the second Gatsby reboot I have read this year, though Watts’ treatment is much less derivative and more original than Vesna Goldsworthy’s “Gorsky”.
Once a stable, if not booming, manufacturing town, Pinewood, North Carolina has seen better days. With racism and segregation still visible in its rearview mirror and a downtown full of abandoned furniture mills and closed store-fronts, Pinewood often seems a place to flee, a place to forget.
“Not much happens here but the same, same: a thirteen-year-old girl waiting for the baby her mother’s sorry boyfriend gave her; the husband we wanted to believe was one of the good ones found out to be the worst kind of cheater with a whole other family two towns over. The same stupid surprises, the usual sadnesses.”
But in some ways, Pinewood is also an idyllic small town, with life-long residents and a sense of community and safety.
“Living in a small town means knowing the news, the broad strokes as well as the lurid minutiae of your neighbor’s life. Your dirty kitchen, cancer treatments, drugged-out child all on the sandwich board of your back, swirled around the body with a stink you could not outrun.”
In this small, struggling, Southern town, Sylvia Ross spends her time hovering around her adult daughter Ava, often meddling in her marriage, her desperation to be a mother, and her friendship with a high school love (Jay Ferguson) who has returned to town after twenty years away. While Sylvia strives to be both a support and a model for her daughter, she is not blind to the fact that her own marriage is anything but predictable or conventional; though she and Don haven’t lived together for nearly thirty years, his occasional reappearances are impossible for her to resist. She can’t help but acknowledge the parallels between her misfortunes, her tolerance of her philandering husband, and her daughter’s life.
When Jay Ferguson returns, he is the talk of the town. This once foster child, whose childhood resembles the life of a stray adopted by a town, is now building a magnificent mansion overlooking all of Pinewood. Jay’s storyline, his name, and his home from which he can see his love interest are the most derivative of Gatsby, but even those elements don’t feel overt or heavy-handed.
Throughout this debut novel, Watts offers polished nuggets of wisdom and insight to a woman’s inner world and to some of the particular patterns her relationships take.
- Of JJ’s life-long obsession with Ava: “Often in these infatuations, the pretty girl uses the boy as a playmate, like another girlfriend but one who reflects back to her proof of her beauty and desirableness. His gaze proprietary but not competitive, his inclination was to do whatever the girl wanted. A teenage girl lives for that power, so often the only taste of it she gets. In that situation, the boy waits patiently for any opening in her amorous attention, any suggestion that his being the confidant and best friend might lead her to love. Not just sex, but of course the boy wanted sex, but these sorts of boys are romantics, the ones that hear the same call to love that so many of the girls hear.”
- Of the complicated dynamics between men and women: “Men tried to make you believe in your own crazy. If you are hysterical they don’t have to see you as an equal, look you in the eye like a person they have to respect. It suited them to make you think that all the shit they pulled, all the lies they told, were in your head. the only crazy part was that most women did believe their men or chose to pretend. Most kept on believing right up to the point the men walked out the door or killed them.”
Watts’ writing is quite beautiful in its starkness and simplicity. The creativity with which she has reimagined a classic story is enviable and makes “No One is Coming to Save Us” a pleasure to read. What was lacking, in my experience, was emotional depth. Somehow, though this book is built upon the powerful emotions and feelings of a few key characters, too often those emotions felt flat, the characters hollow. What should have been an engaging, empathetic read was more often prosaic and easy to hold at a remove.
Thank you to Ecco and to Edelweiss for providing a digital advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review. “No One is Coming to Save Us” will be released April 4, 2017 in the United States.