This is a truly brilliant book, a thorough and often uncomfortable character study that highlights differences in race, class, privilege and values.
Genna Meade is the narrator, the wealthy daughter of radical liberals Max and Veronica, who were active in the activism of the 60s and early 70s. Max is a lawyer to the counter culture movement, and Genna saw countless hippies and radicals live in their shambolic house as she grew up. They are are from a rich family of Quakers, the Meades, though what Genna had in terms of financial wealth she lacked in family support.
At the liberal arts college that was paid for by her family, she gets a roommate in Minette Swift, one of the few black girls in the college hall. Minette is from a church family, is devoutly Christian, and despite all of Genna’s attempts to be her friend, is consistently aloof and guarded and self-reliant.
We hear the story through Geneva fifteen years after Minette’s death at the college. Through their time as roommates, Minette is subjected to apparently racist acts that Genna at first doesn’t see but gradually comes to understand. At the same time she tries to befriend Minette, but Minette always keeps her distance, refusing to accept Genna’s overtures of friendship – something that Genna can’t comprehend.
What’s so powerful about this novel is the detail of emotion – the fact that Minette can’t be pigeonholed, that Genna is both privileged and traumatised by her upbringing, that the relationship between the two girls is so tense, that Genna still can’t see what was going on even a decade and a half later.
And what’s here, too, is the impact of racism and racial stereotyping on Minette, how she is tense and awkward, how she has different values and ways of relating to people, when compared to Genna; and Genna can’t or doesn’t comprehend this, always thinking that Minette will at any moment accept the generous hand of friendship and support she is offering.
We see, as well, the impact of historic forces on individuals’ lives – Minette who is shaped by a history of racism and resistance in America, and Genna who is traumatised by the life her parents forced upon her.
This is an uncomfortable read at times, not least because Minette is often unlikable, and the fact that it’s a white woman, Oates, writing about black experience, makes you wonder whether the portrayal is fair or ought to be more understanding or sympathetic.
Ultimately for me this book is about how, when two people with radically different and difficult histories, values and daily experiences, are thrown together, they can’t easily just get one another, they can’t just connect, there’s too much there holding them apart.