Picking Up the Pieces
Picking Up the Pieces is an interracial romance – heavy on the interracial, light on the actual romance. It’s first and foremost an issue book, and that worked for me on some levels because I found the issue interesting. The writing style and characters don’t quite hold up to any close scrutiny, however.
Althea Almott returns from Paris, with her marriage to a prominent ambassador over and her former modeling career D.O.A. As snow accumulates outside, the airport is closed to further traffic and taxis are completely unavailable. Under these trying circumstances, Althea runs into one of the last people she wants to see – Harry Bensen. Years ago when Althea’s modeling career was just getting off the ground, she and Harry were a hot item. But her influential agent managed to convince her that a relationship with a white man would be detrimental to her career. Althea ended their relationship and hasn’t looked back. But ten years later, here they are in a closed airport. As they start talking to each other, Althea realizes that Harry is not just scruffy looking; he’s dangerously ill. When Harry collapses, they leave the airport and head to the hospital.
Harry is a photographer who recently spent several months in the rainforest, and it turns out that he is seriously ill with a malaria-like infection. His hospitalization is of some duration, and Althea faithfully visits him throughout his stay. She has little else to occupy her time. Her agent is giving her the cold shoulder, mostly because of her divorce. She and her ex-husband were the ultimate black power couple, and the demise of the marriage is assumed to be Althea’s fault (for some reason I never did quite understand). So she’s not working or doing much of anything. When Harry is released from the hospital, Althea takes him in and cares for him in her home; his weakened condition makes living alone impossible. Naturally the whole invalid set-up is a great excuse for them to spend time together, and soon they are experiencing old feelings. And fortunately, just when Harry is getting back on his feet Althea is suddenly hounded by photographers, so they take off and live in Harry’s home in Brooklyn for awhile, far away from prying eyes. They continue on their course toward intimacy, but they keep asking themselves old questions. Can their relationship really work? Are their worlds too different? Are their careers compatible? Can they bear up under the pressures of society?
As long as they were asking these questions, I found myself pretty interested. They are good questions, and the answers aren’t easy. At one point, Harry has a really interesting conversation with his agent Leonel, a black man who intends to marry a black woman. He gives Harry his laundry list of reasons why he feels that this choice will work best for him – but is very understanding about Harry’s situation and feelings. Later there is a nice little secondary romance between Leonel and Althea’s friend Benecia (a single mom who hails from Althea’s Alabama home town). Sometimes Harry and Althea’s experiences as an interracial couple seemed a little far-fetched to me; would people really give them funny looks in a restaurant? In New York…in 2005? I had trouble believing that people would be so intolerant, especially in a large city. But after talking to a few people I decided that perhaps I was just naïve. I sat open-mouthed in a meeting last week when my daughter’s principal related some of the experiences he had traveling with his niece and nephew (one is black, the other Hispanic; the principal is white). At one point they were refused service in a restaurant. Granted, this was rural Wyoming, but it was within the last five years. Maybe we still have a long way to go toward accepting other’s differences.
Anyway, while I found the dynamics of the interracial romance interesting, I was far less interested in the characters or the plot. I never really got a sense of who Althea and Harry were beyond their job titles and their races, and I couldn’t really see what was between them beyond mere lust. On a personal level, their relationship just wasn’t compelling, and I really wasn’t convinced that they would stay together beyond a few months. It didn’t look like happily ever after to me.
Part of the problem may have been the writing style, which was fairly choppy. Dangling participles and poor word choices abounded, and at times the editor in me wanted to get out a red pen and just fix it all so it read better. Any time I have that impulse, I know I’m in trouble.
While this isn’t a book I’d recommend, I did like the fact that the author had an ambitious urge to tackle an interesting issue. Often series romances seem to be somewhat lacking in reality, what with the overabundance of cowboys, self-sacrificing single moms, and “sex lessons.” I appreciated the fact that Gale tackled something that actually happens every day – two people from different races falling in love with each other and weighing the consequences. If the writing and characterization had matched the book’s mature and ambitious agenda, it might have really been something. As it stands, though, I probably wouldn’t seek this one out.