Tuesday, July 26, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Living is Easy by Dorothy West

I’m closing in on or finished with all my challenges except the Back-to-the-Classics challenge. I always particularly enjoy picking the books for this challenge, then drag my feet getting around to them. So, I decided before I read anything else, I had to finish one of my classics.

I went with The Living is Easy by Dorothy West for my classic by a non-white author. West, daughter of an ex-slave, wrote this novel during the 1940s. She was part of the Harlem Renaissance. I fully expected to be moved by this book.

The story follows the life of Cleo Jericho Judson. Cleo was born in the south, the eldest of four girls, to a sharecropper. She moved north, married a wealthy business man, and set about deceiving him and treating him poorly in her quest to socially climb among the black families of good name in Boston. She devotes the bulk of her time to weaseling money out of him, the rest to lying to family and acquaintances in the hopes of personal gain.

As soon as she is able to con her husband into moving into a larger house in a better neighborhood, she lies about the situations of her sisters, and gets him to send them money to come visit. Cleo’s sisters have settled in various places, marrying men they love. They aren’t wealthy. They aren’t moving up in the world. But they are loved and content. Cleo sets out to change all that.

She manages, by hook or by crook, to ruin her sisters’ marriages. Each has brought a child along to Cleo’s house, and she arranges their lives as well, forcing them to become little Bostonians. Cleo has also arranged the life of her daughter’s tutor, an impoverished young woman whose father, from one of the oldest established families, had gone bankrupt and died. Cleo is a master manipulator whose need to be admired is pathologic. She craves control. Eventually, she bleeds her husband dry. (That’s not entirely her fault. WWI has started, affecting his shipments of bananas. And the consolidation of grocery stores squeezes out independents. But one gets the sense he might have done better if not supporting all Cleo’s sisters and nieces and nephew–as well as the insatiably money-hungry Cleo.) Although she treated him like dirt, she realizes how dependent she is on him. The loss of his unconditional support is devastating. Or should have been. But even at rock-bottom, Cleo has no real insight. She is still weaseling money from people and looking for who to exploit next.

This well-drawn portrait of a narcissistic sociopath is surprisingly dull to read. There is social commentary and portrayals of racism (largely intra-community racism as the lighter skinned among them are more admired, and they get to look down on those who are darker, or those more recently come up from the south.) With good writing and themes that are unusual and uncomfortable, this should have been more compelling. Yet the story manages to be both unpleasant in its revelations and tedious. Only towards the end does the pace pick up, because the reader will be more than ready for Cleo’s chickens to come home to roost. Unfortunately, that means the good and the weak people in the novel are dragged down with her. While I tried to find an underlying insecurity in Cleo, or some reason to excuse her or empathize, in the end there was no justification for her utter selfishness.

Maybe it’s just that I didn’t need to be reading such a pessimistic book about such an awful person when there is so much horrible stuff going on in the real world just now. It was a struggle to get through. But at least I can now check off one more book on the challenge.