I would like to thank Sophfronia Scott for sending me a copy of her latest novel, Unforgivable Love, published by William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins. The expected publishing date is September 26, 2017.
At 509 pages, Unforgivable Love is a long novel full of tangles of relationships among several characters. The chapters are told from different points of view, all in 3rd-person past tense. I was very excited to read this book; it’s a re-telling of a famous novel, but now with an all-black cast set in Harlem. Due to all the plot twists and turns, I’m going to use the synopsis on the back of the book to avoid accidental spoilers:
In this vivid reimagining of the French classic Les Liasions dangereuses, it’s the summer when Jackie Robinson breaks Major League Baseball’s color barrier and a sweltering stretch has Harlem’s elite fleeing the city for Westchester County’s breezier climes while two predators stalk amid the manicured gardens and fine old homes.
Heiress Mae Malveaux rules society with an angel’s smile and a heart of stone. She made up her mind long ago that nobody would decide her fate. To have the pleasure she craves, control is paramount, especially control of the men Mae attracts like moths to a flame.
Valiant Jackson always gets what he wants — and he’s wanted Mae for years. The door finally opens for him when Mae strikes a bargain: seduce her virginal young cousin, Cecily, engaged to Frank Washington, who values Cecily’s innocence above all else. If he’s successful, Val’s reward will be a night with Mae.
But Val secretly seeks another prize. Elizabeth Townsend is fiercely loyal to her church and her civil rights attorney husband. She is certain there is something redeemable in Mr. Jackson. Little does she know that her worst mistake will be Val’s greatest triumph.
As you can perhaps tell from the synopsis, Unforgivable Love is a big book of plots and schemes and sex. The characters aren’t what you’ve maybe read about the black community in Harlem in the 1940s because these are wealthy people. They don’t have to work; they mainly try to demonstrate who has the most power. Knowing that, I still had difficulty accepting the characters’ motivations.
In the first few pages, we find a teen-aged Mae with her best friend, Alice. Quickly we learn the girls are sexually attracted to each other, but because Alice has unprotected sexual relationships with men, she’s pregnant, which causes her mother to marry her off. This moment impacts Mae forever, increasing her resolve to never be under someone else’s control — including men.
Later, in her early 30s, Mae acknowledges she does want to be loved, despite her cold, calculating personality. But it’s all the work her mother did to make her a “respectable” heiress — trips to Europe, making sure Mae is beautiful, looking for the right kind of man to marry Mae — that has kept Mae safe from real love. Now, this moment is 32 pages into a 509-page book. Thus, readers need Mae thinking about her motivations throughout the book. She narrates her own chapters, so the opportunity is there. Without this thread of complex emotions running throughout the book, it’s easy for Mae to fall into a stereotype of villain.
Val was the most confusing character. He swings from emotional to cold, loving Elizabeth and/or Mae. I never knew which way he was going to go, but I knew the 3rd-person narrator wanted me to dislike him. He ruins women’s lives to “amuse” himself. He makes “subtle calculations” and “measured out time carefully.” He’s like a snake when he lets a woman “marinate in her escape, or what she thought was her escape.” Yet he’s happy that “there were always a few bribable people who had access to her.” I was uncomfortable with a character who both stalks and loves the same woman, but more importantly, I didn’t understand his feelings.
While I didn’t understand the characters, Sophfronia Scott’s writing was so spot on that in places it warmed me. Young Cecily, who spent a year with her great-aunt and uncle in North Carolina to keep her out of the city and “respectable,” learns to plant and sow, bake and feed, feel the rhythms of nature and her body. Thus, when she’s sexually excited, it’s so fitting that:
When she reached the pinnacle of this exquisite ache she felt herself burst open like a bag of sugar…
Most of these shining moments come from Cecily’s chapters. After a time in North Carolina, Cecily compares her new location to her home in Harlem. In the city:
. . . there seemed to be fewer ways to mark time here, aside from a clock and a calendar. . . . The flowers couldn’t tell her the season because the ones she saw were often forced to bloom out of time. . . The people here were always insisting on their own time — time for drinks, time for church, time for dinner, time to dance, time to play bridge.
And Harlem did seem like a rather odd setting for Unforgivable Love. Characters spend the most time in the country at Val’s wealthy aunt’s house. Based on everything I know about Harlem, I wanted to read more about what it was like to come off the back of the Harlem Renaissance, which ended in the mid-1930s. In the 1940s, there were riots and black politicians elected. At one point, Elizabeth has a debate with Val about the book The Street by Ann Petry, published in 1946. It’s contemporary, set in post-WWII Harlem. Elizabeth makes connections to the book, but Val says there are none because the main character doesn’t represent their Harlem lives. And I agreed. Even the one club the characters in Harlem visit is cut off from the rest of the city’s culture and people. I wanted more signs that I was in Harlem through characters reflecting on why Harlem is unique. Otherwise, any city would do.
Unforgivable Love is a reimagining that slowly burns until closes with a bang. There are tangles that remain knotted because it’s unclear how they were tangled in the first place, and the goal to have revenge through manipulated sexual relationships was exhausting to this reader. I gather it makes a difference if you have read the 1782 French classic epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos first.