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The Living is Easy by Dorothy West

The Living is Easy

by Dorothy West

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Book #5 The Living is Easy - highly recommended
Jackie Onassis spent some of her final years encouraging Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West to finish her second novel, The Wedding. She would visit West at her home in Martha’s Vineyard almost weekly. The first 3/4 of the novel is a marvel. But Onassis died before West completed it and West lost her will to do so after the loss of her friend. An editor completed it – and did so poorly.

So, if you want pure Dorothy West you have to read her first novel, The Living is Easy. This novel, set circa 1915 Boston, features the shenanigans of a married black woman, Cleo, who was born in the south and wants more than anything to become a Bostonian and live the good and mannered life. It shows a panoply of black society, and is a comedy of manners, a black “Middlemarch”, if you will. It captures black people at a time when they were figuring out who they could become and how they were going to fit into America. Early 20th century black high society stretched to include anyone with a non-agricultural or domestic job to Harvard-educated doctors.

At this time in Boston, black people were able to ride on the trolley without taking the back seat and could go into any movie theater, but they faced challenges as they tried to outrun the shadow yet cast by slavery. How to get acknowledged and financially rewarded for your achievement? What is the obligation of the freer northern black population to those still in the south? Should your black newspaper publish events of discrimination or only the successes? Should there be a black newspaper? How should rich black people engage with poor ones? Should people born out of a mixed-race union be given a high status or derided? Should you accept your classmates’ apology for beating you up because they thought you were walking with a white woman who is actually your paler sister? Should you stay in Boston or push to be the only black family in Brookline? Needless to say, these questions can all be asked today. Here they are answered by the funny and devious, yet tragic, character Cleo.

This book is a wonderful time capsule and is written with exquisite skill. It is more of a slice of life than a good story, but it’s a juicy slice. ( )
  linenandprint | Apr 11, 2017 |
Cleo is one of the most despicable characters I have ever had the displeasure of reading about.

This book can be summarized up something like this.

Once upon a time a devilish child named Cleo was born. Her sisters had the misfortune of being very innocent and naïve. She took advantage of them. She hurt them. She was happy.

Cleo grew up and moved away. Her sisters started to have normal lives. Cleo was unhappy about this. This simply would not do. They were too far away from her tentacles. She tricked them. She hurt them. She was happy.

The elite colored Boston community was also caricatured. They were Cleo's equals in cruelty and heartlessness. She was among her peeps.

I love a good villain, but Cleo was just too much for me! Unfortunately that was not the only problem I had with this novel. The storyline just did not interest me, and I struggled to finish this one. ( )
  londalocs | Oct 9, 2014 |
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"Walk up," hissed Cleo, somewhat fiercely.
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"Mama didn't know what made Cleo so wild. Cleo got more of her attention than all of her other children put together. God help her when she grew up. God help the man who married her. God help her sisters not to follow in her footsteps."
Cleo's marriage to Bart Judson is her ticket to higher things. Not for her the lifetime of hard work and poverty that her mother had known, or the invisibility which white society usually hands out to Black people. With Bart's money and her pale skin, Cleo intends to make use of the gifts in her favour - her "charming insincerity" and his generosity will see to that. Carefully manipulating the power which, since childhood, she has enjoyed in the face of others' weakness, she will stop at nothing to win a place for herself, her daughter and her sisters' children in Boston's Black society... First published in 1948, this powerful, vibrant portrait of a woman for whom social respectability can never have too high a price, is also a gripping account of the way in which prejudice and racism affect her - as both victim and oppressor. (From the back cover of the VMC edition.)
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