What happens in a poor factory town when the factories fold? Even deeper poverty, depression, and an almost stoic acceptance of life's limitations. Work is scarce and happiness seems even scarcer. Every character has some sort of tragic backstory, and with glimpses into three generations of women, the reader sees families making the same mistakes over and over again. Ava and her husband Henry have been struggling with infertility for years and it, along with Henry's infidelities, has taken a harsh toll on their marriage. Ava's mother Sylvia is estranged from her own cheating husband but refuses to divorce him despite the fact that they haven't lived together for years. Everyone in the small town lives in each other's pockets, and secrets don't stay secrets for long, including the return of JJ who's been gone for over a decade. JJ kicks up a whirlwind of rumors and speculation when he moves back and starts building a mansion, a symbol of everything he grew up without, high up on a hilltop for the entire town to see. He's there to woo his high school sweetheart Ava, but what he sets in motion will change more than just his own life.
While Watts wrote this as a loose reboot of The Great Gatsby, it lacks the frenetic energy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic. That seems very intentional, given that Watts set her book in the present day in a dying factory town instead of glitzy New York City in the roaring twenties. On top of that, her characters are African American and not well-off, aside from JJ, the character modeled after Jay Gatsby. And even he isn't effortlessly wealthy; he makes his living as a blue collar laborer with a few lucrative contracts. What the book does well, perhaps better than Fitzgerald's, is evoke a sense of fatalism that resonates with every character in the book. Even JJ, who returns to the small town as the prodigal son and, by their standards, wealthy and accomplished, isn't actually happy. He has the money and the motivation to build a mansion, but it doesn't have the woman he's spent his life pining over in it. The narrative is bleak but richly written and somehow still manages to be uplifting despite the numerous tragedies and setbacks the characters face. Readers who enjoy a good family saga should give this novel a chance.
Reviewed by BA, 05/17. Other reviews by BA.