I had an odd experience with this book. For some reason, I had it in my head that this was a memoir, perhaps because before I started it, some people in my book club compared it to The Glass Castle, an excellent memoir by Jeannette Walls that we read a few years ago. I ordered Caucasia through the library, so I didn't see which section it came from. I didn't look at the back cover or flaps; just started reading. Yes, I noticed the author's name on the cover didn’t match the main character’s, but she says right away that she has changed her name.
So, thinking that it was a true story, I thought it brilliant. Really captured the time period—Boston during the Civil Rights era (which, yes, I remember well)—and laid out some very interesting issues re race. The narrator, Birdie, and her sister are daughters of a bi-racial family: their mother is Caucasian and their father is African-American. By the luck of the gene pool, Birdie can pass for white while the sister has obviously African-American features and coloring.
The father is a scholar, who disapproves of the mother’s activitism and the rather dangerous people she begins to hang around with as she becomes involved with a wing of the Civil Rights movement who believe violence is the answer. The parents separate, the sister going with their father and his new (African-American) girlfriend, Carmen, to Brazil while Birdie goes with their mother and begins a new life as a white girl, moving around to avoid the consequences of the mother’s activism, but eventually settling in New Hampshire.
I did think the bond between the sisters almost too good to be true, but maybe not everyone fought with her sister the way I did, and I was willing to cut the author some slack since truth is often odder than fiction. I read about a quarter of the book before I actually looked at the flaps and realized it was a novel. I can't tell you how disappointed I was! I think that original misunderstanding was why I began to feel that the story—though very well-written—was too far-fetched.
For one thing, certain things were just paired too neatly. One white-looking daughter, one black. A fat, sloppy mother and a hip, gorgeous aunt. One sister overtly favored by their mother’s mother (a wealthy suburbanite), one by Carmen (In fact, I found Carmen's favoritism hard to understand; there seemed no basis for it). Polar opposites always make me suspicious; the world seems more complex than that.
Secondly, parts of the story, starting with the part set in New Hampshire, seemed unrealistic to me. I don’t want to give anything away, but things fall into place for them very easily and the last scraps of their former life seem to float away. To me, the first part of the story was character-driven and the second part more plot-driven, where the exigencies of the plot overrode the nuances of the characters and the complexity of their relationships.
The book raised interesting questions about race, which I thought could have been explored more fully. The weirdness/madness of the father's situation at the end—like a male cat lady—kept me from considering his theories about race. The whole did-she-or-didn't-she of the mother's situation kept me from considering how Birdie felt about being secretly black in white world.
These minor quibbles aside, I think the book is very well-written. The voice was wonderful; Senza really captured the child's and then the teenager's language and world view perfectly. And the period details were added in just the right amount. I loved the way the relationship between Birdie and her mother was developed, the clear-eyed love Birdie had for this flawed woman.