Hardcover, 352 pages
Published: April 12, 2011 by Hachette Books (1st Published April 1, 2001)
Setting: New York City
Sixteen-year-old Grace leaves her native village in Trinidad to fulfill her dream of starting a new life in New York City. With a mixture of sadness and euphoria, she boards a plane, leaving her devoted mother, who relies on prayers, scriptures, and — if all else fails — a slight sense of martyrdom, her sick, disabled father, and her younger sister Helen.
Grace plans to stay with a cousin until she finds work in New York. Things do not go as planned, and when her first position as a nanny ends, she finds herself sharing a space in an unsafe, dilapidated apartment building with Sylvia, who is also from the West Indies. Their Orthodox Jewish landlord, Jacob, seems benign on the surface. However, his failure to provide safe living conditions in his properties crosses the line into cruelty. Grace helps Sylvia care for her three children, in this cramped, chaotic household, while she looks for another position as a nanny.
This leads her to the Bruckners, an upper middle class Manhattan couple, and their four-year-old son Ben. Grace feels uneasy with Miriam and Sol Bruckner and realizes she’s being underpaid. However she’s frantic to escape from Sylvia’s house, and positions aren’t easy to come by. Held hostage by the Bruckners’ promise to sponsor her for citizenship, she find herself in an increasingly exploitative situation.
While minding Ben, Grace copes with his parents’ demands, including being available at all hours, fixing Sol’s coffee “just the way he likes it,” and photographing pregnant Miriam in the nude. She’s also tangled in a heartbreaking injustice being done to Sylvia’s children, who are especially vulnerable in a world where impoverished immigrants are often trampled upon. She’s torn between her present life, which holds her hopes for the future, and the needs of her family in Trinidad. Sadly, she cannot return to Trinidad to help her sick father without risking being unable to return to America.
Grace is also helping her spunky friend Kathy cope with heartbreak, connecting with her gay friend Dave, who’s creating a spectacular indoor garden as he mourns the loss of his lover, and experiencing her own sexual awakening.
I was quickly hooked by Grace’s story. I was especially captivated by the way the author captured the culturally diverse worlds of Brooklyn and Manhattan, a complex tangle of myriad ethnic groups. I saw posh Manhattan apartments, ethnic markets, and dilapidated apartment buildings. I heard the cadence of West Indian speech, got a peek inside a charismatic church, and listened to West Indian nannies gossip in the park as they watch their charges. All of this is seen through Grace’s mind, which is intelligent, compassionate, and sometimes naive. The author’s eye for detail, gift for character development, and ear for dialogue really make this shine.
I also loved the eloquent way Grace contrasted her two homes:
Back on the island, and only on very early January and February mornings, Helen and I would exhale the gentlest puffs of air through our mouths and see fragile white clouds. It was just a fraction of a second before the tropical heat consumed the cool air. Now, my own breath shrouded me as I decided to walk in the opposite direction on Eastern Parkway, deeper into Crown Heights, where the Hasidim went.
Difficult social issues — including poverty, explosive tensions among ethnic groups, problems faced by immigrants, and homophobia — run through the fabric of this story, but they’re woven in with a light hand. This novel spotlights prejudices and blind spots in people from all cultures and socioeconomic groups. Sometimes it’s chilling, but it’s often revealed in a gentle, funny way:
When I’d first started working for Mora and I told my mother they were Jewish, she hadn’t understood. She’d kept asking again and again if they were real Jews. She couldn’t define what exactly she meant by “real Jews,” but I think she, we really, had sort of understood Jews to be people in the Bible, not a family of six living in a four-bedroom colonial with an aboveground pool in Highland Park, New Jersey. She had been full of questions about what they wore — not robes and sandals — and what they ate — not manna and dates. I had told her that the Speisers looked like regular white people, except they didn’t eat meat with milk or cheese, and they went to service on Saturdays. My mother had asked, almost afraid to hear the answer, if they really and truly did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Lord and Savior and no man went to the Father but through him. Nope, I had told her. They didn’t believe a word of it. Mora told me the best they made of Christ was that he was a rogue Jew with a God complex.
I found this book heartbreaking and absolutely infuriating and, at the same time, entertaining and funny. I think it will be a hit with many readers, especially those who gravitate toward character-driven novels, coming of age stories, and multicultural perspectives in fiction. It definitely captivated me, making me sorry to lose Grace’s company when I’d closed the book for the last time.