Like the movie Soul Food, Sheer Necessity follows three African-American sisters and their family as they deal with problems in their lives. The book does so ably, but lacks some of the soul that characterized the movie (as written and directed by George Tillman Jr).
The center of the book is supposed to be Toni Carleton, a twenty-nine-year-old college student who is a single mother, works in a bookstore, and owns a newly opened hair salon in Delaware. The previous sentence is a good illustration of one of the major problems with this book – there’s simply too much going on. Toni is practically a superwoman. Not only does she handle all of the day-to-day activities of her life, she manages to help out with family problems as well.
The family problems involve her two sisters who still live in their home town of Cleveland. Lynnette, the younger sister, has two small children, one on the way and a husband who is a bully. Joy is a party girl and single mother; she can’t seem to hold a job or get her life on track. Toni herself is dealing with an ex-husband who drops in and out of her life and the major pressure she is under to graduate and make her business successful. Despite her own pressing schedule, Toni drops everything to go home to Cleveland when Joy is in trouble.
Although the characters could have come across as stereotypical, they don’t. A perfect example is Marvin, Toni’s ex-husband. He’s first described as the man who cheated on Toni extensively while they were married and who doesn’t spend any time with their daughter, Sanji. The reader is prepared to dislike this man, but can’t. Each time he appears we learn a little more about him and realize that while he has major problems, some of which he visits on Toni, he is not an ogre. He’s more complicated then that, as is just about every character in this book, and that’s good.
The problem is that no matter how enjoyable these characters are, there are too many of them and therefore, you don’t get to spend a lot of time with any of them. The book is told in episodic form. The sections don’t just follow Toni, Joy and Lynette. Everybody’s story is told. Toni’s mother Anna Mae is facing joblessness if she can’t get her GED. And Toni’s business partner Chris is a gay man who’s relationship is falling apart. Like many things that are told in episodic form, the crises are wrapped up a little too neatly. By the end of the book the feeling of triumph we’re supposed to feel at Toni’s graduation is dimmed because of all the other happy conclusions.
This brings us back to the soul part of the book. There’s no emotional core. The blurb on the back of the book suggests that Toni is the nexus of the book, and I’m sure she’s supposed to be, but she doesn’t prevent the disconnected feeling I got. It’s hard to say why, because these are all strongly-drawn individuals and Toni is certainly included in that description. Perhaps it comes down to the simple fact that Toni is removed from her family, both physically and emotionally. She’s in another town and state and only gets home for celebrations and emergencies. She’s got a life of her own, which means that though the book is supposed to be about her discovering the importance of family, those discoveries come in short bursts that don’t lead anywhere.
If you’re wondering about any romance elements, there aren’t many to speak of. Toni does meet an interesting man, Beale, who pops up throughout the book, but when it comes down to it, the relationship I was most caught up in was the one between Chris and his lover Marshall.
The strength of this novel is the individual characters. Each has an interesting story, I just wish they had been in more then one book.