Can a Black woman surrender herself to her soul mate and at the same time be absolutely free? That is the question at the core of Pearl Cleage’s lyrical fifth novel, Baby Brother’s Blues (One World/Ballantine $24.95). The storyteller, at the top of her form here, skillfully juggles themes of independence and surrender, community and personal responsibility, passion and logic, secrets and truth telling.

Set in the author’s vividly rendered Atlanta, Baby reintroduces provocative characters from Cleage’s third novel, Some Things I Thought I’d Never Do (One World/Ballantine, $23.95). Remember Regina Burns, the determined sister who used drugs, mortgaged the family home, and then cleaned up the mess she made? And Blue Hamilton, the chocolate-skinned brother with the azure eyes? In Cleage’s new tale, Blue and Regina have been married for two years. They live in a restored Victorian house in the West End neighborhood that remains crime-free largely due to Blue’s watchful presence. Enter Wesley “Baby Brother” Jamerson, a misunderstood young delinquent who threatens to upend Blue and Regina’s blissful world.

“You know at the heart of being in love is surrender,” says Cleage, 57. “And many of us are afraid to surrender because then who will look out for us when we’re out there being romantic?” And as Cleage makes plain, it’s no joke for sisters “out there.” The characters in Baby Brother’s Blues play many emotional games—some of them quite dangerous. For the author, the ATL—where she’s lived for many years and where she anchors her stories—is a small town in which secrets are better than money. With emotional accuracy, she captures the devastation that betrayal by those we think we know best can bring. There’s a chilling scene in the novel in which a married man chooses to have sex with other men, both friends and strangers. Yes, Cleage does go there. And because she doesn’t back off from exploring the psychology of the betrayer and the betrayed, we wind up feeling compassion for both.

As a seasoned writer, Cleage says her greatest challenge is creating characters such as Regina and the “down low” brother for whom readers will feel sympathy. It’s vintage Cleage, writing about women and men in love and in trouble. And she explores our passions and pain with grace and grit in this sassy, soulful intergenerational page-turner that also features a vibrant postmenopausal woman and her grown and sexy man.

“Who says that if you’re writing about a romantic relationship, the women have to be 34?” asks Cleage, who has been married to writer Zaron W. Burnett, Jr., for 12 years. “The blessing of being an author as opposed to being a dancer or an athlete is we don’t have to stop because our knees are giving out,” says the novelist, who is also a poet, essayist and playwright. “As long as we’re prepared to look at life and feel things, we can write into old age.”

Photo Credit: Heather Conley
Photo Credit: Mara I. Sedans

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