Family Affairs is labeled as straight fiction, but that’s not quite accurate. The primary focus of the book is the love story between the hero and the heroine. So is it romance? Well, not exactly. The hero and heroine both sleep with other people, and though their relationship seems to be solid at the end, they aren’t exactly married or even engaged. In effect, this book really straddles the romance/fiction fence. It’s a good read, but it could have been stronger with a solid romance focus.
Gayla Patton has a life many would envy. She owns her own gallery in New York City which promotes the work of up and coming black artists. She has a beautiful daughter, and a loyal, rich, nice-guy boyfriend – Bill – who would love to marry her. She’s not sure why she’s reluctant to marry Bill, until her gallery needs a last minute substitute for an exhibition. Suddenly Gayla finds herself face to face with the artist, David Kinney, and the fabric of her life begins to unravel.
Gayla and David share a common past. He was taken in by her mother after his own mother’s violent death. The two never got along at the time, and he has since made a lot of mistakes – one of which landed him in jail. Now he’s trying to make a life for himself as an artist doing controversial work that illuminates the tragedy of life in the ghetto. At first, Gayla wants nothing to do with David. She quickly recognizes the genius in his work, but she has trouble letting go of past resentment. But as she works with David and spends more time with him, she begins to realize that he has truly changed. As she forgives him, she begins to feel his positive influence in her life, and suddenly nice, patient Bill starts looking less attractive. However, both main characters have baggage from the past. David wants to leave his street life, but he has tenacious friends who would rather not see him change. Meanwhile, people close to Gayla begin asking questions about her daughter’s parentage, and it seems that she will finally have to face the truth about her own past.
Family Affairs is aptly named. The influence of family and the ties that bind a family together are a common thread throughout the novel. Sometimes it’s overcoming a violent family, sometimes joining or leaving a gang “family,” and sometimes it’s wanting to be a part of someone else’s family. Kitt illustrates all types of family relationships, and shows how all members of a family constantly seek forgiveness and acceptance. Her treatment of the emotional life of the characters, particularly David and Gayla, is insightful and moving.
And it’s the characters that really make this book work. None of them are cardboard stereotypes; everyone is a complicated mixture of faults and virtues. Gayla is a real stand-out. At first glance she seems like superwoman with the perfect life. But she also has a lot of problems which she’d like to be able to handle completely on her own. One of her difficulties is sickle cell anemia. Kitt doesn’t make Gayla’s medical condition the focus of the book; rather, she shows it as just one part of Gayla’s life.
David is also multi-faceted. He’s both confident about his abilities and afraid to make himself vulnerable to the criticism of others. His relationship with Gayla starts out badly, and their interaction is very believable. As they spend more time with each other, they realize that they both have grown up and changed. They begin to see one another in a different light, and the reader can’t help rooting for both of them.
Two problems keep this interesting character study from getting a top grade. The first is that the flow of time is a little awkward. I was never clear on how much time went by during the course of the novel. New chapters would start, and although it was clear that time had passed, it was impossible to tell how much. This might not bother you, but it is somewhat confusing. Similarly, I never did understand just how much time David spent with Gayla’s family when he was a child. It could have been three years, or it could have been nine.
The other problem relates to the novel’s dual nature as both fiction and romance. Although it claims to be fiction, it really reads more like romance – enough so that I really wanted more of a resolution between David and Gayla at the end. About two more chapters would have done it; they could have had a nice discussion about their feelings for each other, then we could have had a glimpse of their future plans. The two do share a love scene, but it’s no different than those they share with others. And a note about the love scenes: they are very frank in their sensuality. There are no manhoods or nubbins here. Other parts of the book also contain very frank language.
Overall Family Affairs is an interesting, poignant book with believable characters. Just be warned that the love relationship doesn’t evolve as fully as it would in a more traditional romance.