What You Owe Me
Although most authors are advised to write what you know, it might be more appropriate to suggest they write what they feel. Bebe Moore Campbell’s writing is proof that an African-American woman can write believably from any perspective. Her first book, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine read like a lighter Toni Morrison, and her next book, the Terry McMillan-esque Brothers And Sisters, was far too glib in its depiction of racial and sexual politics. Besides her occasional commentaries on NPR, I hadn’t read anything of hers since that time. It is with great pleasure, therefore, to report that Campbell is back on track with the saga What You Owe Me, a surprisingly easy read that touches on betrayal, revenge, loyalty, desperation, and fealty, as well as racial and sexual issues.
When the novel opens, it is 1945 and Hosanna Clark, a Texan and the daughter of parents who were cheated out of their land by white men, is working as a cleaning woman at a Los Angeles hotel. She meets and befriends Gilda, a Jew who has recently escaped from the terrors of the Holocaust, who becomes the only white person Hosanna has ever known. Hosanna teaches Gilda English, takes her to get her tattoo removed and, eventually, the two go into the cosmetics business together. The two are the best of friends, and Hosanna is devastated when Gilda severs all contact and steals all her money.
Fifty years later, Hosanna’s daughter, Matriece, works for Gilda’s cosmetics company, which is about to launch a line aimed towards African-American women. Matriece holds her mother’s grudge and is determined to somehow pay Gilda back. What she doesn’t count on is that, in the process, she will get to know Gilda’s nuances as we do and learn that things are not always black and white. She resolves her issues with her mother’s past and, in the process, comes to terms with her own identity.
Though Matrience is clearly the main character, this is not her story alone. The primary themes of betrayal and love are depicted in so many varying shades that to describe the variations would be confusing and needlessly spoiling. Campbell has multiple characters who relate their viewpoints, and there are at least ten different story threads winding through the book. The author keeps all of the characters’ stories on track and intertwines them in a way that wrings emotion out of every situation – from children whose parents have deserted them (played out in at least four different story lines) to friends betraying each other (at least three times) to people letting themselves down (innumerable instances). Campbell’s writing is clear and eloquent, and even though the numerous perspectives could easily be awkward in a lesser writer, in this author’s skillful hands they are anything but.
What You Owe Me is a book that feels like a guilty pleasure because it is so enjoyable, but its themes are evocative and pertinent. Do yourself a favor and get your copy today.