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I Wish I Had...Book Review

Phyllis Rhodes

I WISH I HAD A RED DRESS is Pearl Cleage's sequel to her best-selling debut novel and Oprah Book Club selection, What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day which focused on Ava's life and struggles living with AIDS. Red Dress focuses on Ava's older, widowed sister, Joyce Mitchell who lives in Idlewild, Michigan, the once popular, now crumbling resort community for affluent African Americans where she lives among the ordinary folks who are working to overcome dysfunction and reclaim their lives. Joyce is an activist who works as a social worker counseling young black women at a community center she founded The Sewing Circus (which has been affectionately dubbed "The Circus").  Most of her clientele are teenagers and young adults who are the product of single parent homes and many of whom are single mothers. Although Joyce has her work, her family, her friends and her town, she's lacking in her love life because she has no one to tend to those periods of loneliness and lost intimacy.  It has been five years since her husband's tragic accident and time is still standing still in the romance department for Joyce. While she has her memories, daydreams and self-pleasures none of those can take the place of a muscular, hard, dark and handsome African American male. Joyce knows that something is missing but is afraid to acknowledge it and take the initiative to change.  After all, her sister has AIDS, her father passed when she was sixteen, her mother committed suicide on her wedding night a year later, her son got hit by a car walking home from school when he was six, her adopted daughter was born addicted to crack cocaine, and her biological daughter didn't make it to her first birthday. After all the other tragedies, her husband was always the one constant in her life and now he was gone. Opening her heart and chancing love was an endeavor that Joyce wasn't sure she was ready or willing to undertake at 40-something. As the story opens, Joyce has to put thoughts about relationships, love, desires and her personal needs on hold, because first, she must meet with state legislatures to secure their votes to fund the proposal she worked on the last three months to save "The Circus" program. While Joyce is busy focusing on the girls and funding, her friends, Bill and Sister are busy playing matchmaker. Over dinner, Sister introduces Joyce to Nate Anderson who has just moved to the area to work at the local high school as a guidance counselor. Nate, a former Detroit cop, is a sensitive, understanding, and supportive gentlemen and he touches emotions in Joyce that have long been suppressed but as fate would have it--there's much drama with the 'baby daddy' of one of The Circus girls that keeps Joyce from focusing on self and backing away from Nate. Will Nate be there to weather the emotional/mental storm with her and help her to realize that decent and loving African American males still exist and that if she lets her guards down and opens her heart she might just have a recent to purchase and wear that daring little red dress?
This book is an excellent choice for the introspective reader. Ms. Cleage does a wonderful job of tapping into the psyche and communicating the desires of young women and single mothers who create their own happiness and successes through adversity. The concept of being a "free woman" provides the avenue of being true to oneself, others, and their community. The "Circle" of friends demonstrate honesty, tolerance and respect amongst each other. It also brought to light how an individual can be there for someone else and tend to forget about their own needs and desires--a trait often exhibited by women of all colors.  Like Joyce, I love to wear black because of the beautiful, chic, and sophisticated look it offers.  However, I, too love to wear that proverbial "red dress" which liberates, invigorates, renews, and encourages the spirit (and other things according to Johnny Gill).  The message is that every woman needs to own and don the red dress every now and then because it is good for the soul and is necessary for self-preservation. She cleverly covers a multitude of topics in this book: life issues like self-love/acceptance, inner strength, self-reliance and being true to oneself above all things. There are also many positive examples of solid relationships and conflict resolution because the characters in the book worked through many real life situations that illustrated how to speak one's opinion (no matter how different) among friends and remain true friends and to have a meaningful relationship with a black man without sacrificing yourself.

Overall, this book is a well-written story with colorful and memorable characters. NCBC deducted points because of a slow start, some prolonged dry segments, and a lack of closure on some issues raised early in the story. Points were also shaved for the somewhat disappointing and rushed ending. Character development and symbolism were strong, in fact many of the book club members wanted to more about the supporting characters, like the Lattimores and the twins (perhaps theres a three-quel coming forth?). 

Depending on the state of mind of the reader, the book has the potential to tap the soul.   It may awaken or confirm a desire to become active in our communities, work with our youth, or to pursue a deferred dream (while wearing red of course).  It could spark determination to pursue, attain and maintain balance and happiness in your life and your family's life.  As a sequel, Ms. Cleages prose was on target once again as she inspires and enlightens (without being too preachy) and shows us that life is about taking chances, taking risks, accepting the past but letting go, moving forward, and embracing life.