Monday, February 25, 2013

Silver Sparrow--Tayari Jones (Book discussion)

I read Silver Sparrow for Vasilly's African-American Read In. I'm really glad I participated in this event, because I missed this book when it first came out, so I probably wouldn't have read it otherwise.

Silver Sparrow is the story of two families with the same father, a bigamist. Chaurisse and her mother, James Witherspoon's first wife, have no idea the other family exists. Dana and her mother are part of his secret life, playing second fiddle to the family they share their father/husband with.

The first half of the book is told from the perspective of Dana. It's well written, but there is a lot of back story and I was impatient for the action to start. I am not a fan of the long, drawn-out beginning laden with foreshadowing, a la Prayer for Owen Meany. So, I wasn't quite drawn in to the story as a whole, though every chapter drew me effectively to the next. I enjoyed Dana's voice and her story, and as she became a teenager looking toward college, I eagerly anticipated the inevitable moment when her family--James's big secret--would somehow collide with her half-sister and James's other wife.

Then, at page 165, part one ends and--BAM!--the novel shifts to the other half-sister's point of view, backing up in time to her young childhood.

It felt as though someone had ripped out the pages of the middle of a book I was enjoying, and replaced them with another book. I flipped through the pages to see if we would soon return to Dana's point of view, but no--apart from a brief epilogue, the rest of the novel is told from the perspective of her other family.

It was effective, I'll say that. The shift took hold of me emotionally with a grip that I hadn't felt up to that point. Because both sections are written in the first person, and there wasn't a huge contrast between the two voices, I found myself getting mixed up occasionally, having to remind myself that I wasn't still in Dana's head. When the climax, the big moment I'd been waiting for since page one happened, I felt cheated because I didn't get to experience it through Dana's eyes. And yet, when James's best friend Raleigh accidentally called one daughter by the other daughter's name, I was right there with him.

I guess I was left with the same feeling the characters each experienced.

After a brief musical interlude, we'll proceed to Vasilly's discussion questions.

The Soundtrack: Al Green, soul singer-turned-minister, comes up repeatedly in the novel, so his "Let's Stay Together" is the obvious choice.

And now, the questions:
There is so much talk these days about fatherhood—contrasting the deadbeat dad with the Bill Cosby-type father. How do you evaluate James Witherspoon, who is both?
He was definitely not a deadbeat dad, though he surely had his shortcomings. He tried so hard to be involved in both of his girls' lives, and clearly loved them both. On the other hand, he kind of screwed Dana over by making her live her life in the shadow of Chaurisse.

Is Laverne’s life better or worse for having married James? What about Gwen? Does James love Laverne or Gwen? Does he love either one of them?
Laverne may have been better off. I think Gwen got the short end of the stick, though. She had another option, and she should have taken it. As for James, I think he thought he loved both women, but he was so self-involved that I'm not sure he truly knew what love was.

Why do you think Raleigh is so loyal to James?  Oh, Raleigh! I adored that character. I think he felt that James saved him by letting him into his family as a boy.

Should Gwen have married Raleigh when she had the chance?
Yes. But I understand why she didn't.

Were you surprised to read about Gwen confronting Laverne?
No, I was waiting for it for the whole book!

Did you have a favorite character? Did you have a least favorite? Which characters would you like to know more about?
Raleigh was my favorite, but I also loved both Dana and Chaurisse (even though I didn't want the second half to be her point of view, I still liked her as a character). The character I wished we'd seen more of was Bunny. She clearly had such a huge influence, and yet even with all the back story, we hardly got a chance to know her.

Were you surprised at the ending?  I was. I thought the Dana-Chaurisse relationship was going to go further, that there would be a stronger connection between them. I didn't necessarily expect one big happy family, but I felt the end was pretty darned abrupt.

I'd like to thank Vasilly for hosting this read-in and for the discussion questions. I look forward to next year's African American Read In--and am hoping to get my real-life book club involved next year as well.

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, I hope you'll do so in the comments, on your own blog, or at the Silver Sparrow discussion post.


  1. Totally agree about Raleigh AND Bunny.

  2. I went "oh no!" when I got to the point where we switched narrators. But, in the end, it worked for me. It's such a great trick to have the reader know more than a first-person narrator. I just had to keep reading to see when Chaurisse was going to find out what I already knew.

    Joy's Book Blog