Monday, March 1, 2010

Reading Corner: Mama Dearest

I bought it, placed it on the shelf and looked at it.

I packed it in my suitcase and dragged it with me from St. Thomas to Barbados intending to spend time with it out on the lido deck. I re-packed it in my suitcase and brought it home. Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went and still I couldn’t bring myself to take the final step.

Yet finally, nearly a year after the death of E. Lynn Harris and several months since the release of his final novel, “Mama Dearest”, I took the plunge and decided to read it.

For those that are new to my blog, I have posted several book reviews on novels (click here for all posts on books) but none were as hard-hitting as those by E. Lynn. His series figures prominently into my life as a SGL man because he was the first black SGL author I had been introduced to. The Divo had given me a copy of “Invisible Life” for my birthday about a year after we met and from then on, I was hooked!

Fast forward several years and I have read his entire collection, including his memoir, “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted.” And I’ve been taken on an emotional rollercoaster every time. From the first scene involving Raymond Tyler in his college dorm room to the epilogue in his final novel involving Yancey H. Braxton, I have been on a poignant journey, defining my life and learning what it truly meant to be a SGL man in a world I was only beginning to (and still struggling to) understand. Simply put, no SGL man can say they have truly “come out” unless they have read the master of African-American SGL literature.

While only a select few authors have since captured my mind and heart, E. Lynn always kept me hooked and interested. I couldn’t bring myself to blog about his death last year and in many ways, I’m still in shock at his passing. It feels like a bizarre dream. While Harris claimed to be just an average guy simply following his dreams and passion, he touched thousands of lives along the way both directly and indirectly and I can say that I was one of those fortunate few.

Now I don’t like to give endings away (although it’s been several months since the release) as I’m sure that SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE, SOMEHOW has NOT read this book. That said, I’ll rate it with 4 stars out of 5. I know that seems heartless and possibly disrespectful but I’m not going to be soft – and I don’t think E. Lynn would want any critics out there to go easy. Authors crave feedback and E. Lynn Harris was a true author to the very end. So …

I was extremely happy to see the return of Yancey but secretly yearned for more Basil or Raymond. A note to fans seeking our two favorite SGL hotties: they do make extensive cameos, but the story remains firmly centered on the true divas. The plot revolves around Yancey Braxton, last seen sabotaging Nicole Springer’s career, trashing John Basil Henderson at the altar and dealing with her very crazy and delusional “mother” Ava Middlebrooks who has finally been released from prison. Of course, no Harris book is complete without revenge, drama, schemes, plots and good old backstabbing and he definitely returned to what he knew best.

Unfortunately, it’s a song and dance all too familiar to his readers, especially throughout his past several novels (Basketball Jones, Too Good To Be True, I Say A Little Prayer) and I could already spot the snakes in the grass from the first few chapters. Additionally, I was not crazy about the lengthy sex scene between Yancey and her newest suitor, S. Marcus which has left me wondering why Harris chose the straight path (writing from a woman’s perspective) in “Too Good To Be True” and “Mama Dearest.”

Harris also reintroduced several characters, one of which is Madison B., Yancey’s daughter she gave up for adoption to pursue her own dreams of stardom. I wasn’t too pleased with her portrayal which was defined by a struggling combination of Nicole, Yancey and Ava’s personalities. For a teenage celebrity, she wasn’t youthful-acting enough for me and appeared as an old soul trapped in a young body.

The buildup towards the climax was executed perfectly however, as a reader I was left with many questions and felt some of the characters were out of character. While Ava returned to her conniving ways, characters such as Lyrical and Dalton seemed placed to serve as a moral foundation for the novel; I understood their purpose but felt it would have been a better read without them. Nevertheless, Harris’ attempt to melt the heart of Yancey succeeded and I must commend him on a job well done.

Still, that last star must be withheld due to a rushed ending and many unanswered questions. Overall, it was great to see closure for many of his beloved characters (Raymond, Basil, Nicole, Yancey, Ava) and while it has been a lengthy and complicated adventure from the first page of “Invisible Life”, it has never been dull. I know I’ve listed most of my criticisms in this post but I believe his best novels were behind him (“Invisible Life”, “Just As I Am”, “And This Too Shall Pass”) and most of his final novels were rushed and reflected more of an experimental phase in his writing.

Personally, I would have preferred at least one more novel to complete the series featuring Raymond and/or Basil (the primary characters from the start) and a positive depiction of a middle-class black SGL couple.

But one can still dream, right?

We will miss you dearly Mr. E. Lynn Harris and thank you for all the joy, laughter, tears and thrills you have brought into our lives. May you rest in peace.

E. Lynn Harris (1954-2009)

Invisible Life
Just As I Am
And This Too Shall Pass
If This World Were Mine
Abide With Me
Any Way The Wind Blows
Not A Day Goes By
A Love Of My Own
I Say A Little Prayer
Just Too Good To Be True
Basketball Jones
Mama Dearest
What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted (memoir)

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