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Whitegirl
By Kate Manning
Review by: Patricia R. Payette

  1/1/04

ISBN: 0385332874

At first glance, the plot of Kate Manning’s novel Whitegirl suggests the O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson tragedy: Charlotte, the “white girl” of the title, is bedridden after being brutally attacked in her home, and her husband, Milo, an Olympic athlete-turned-action movie star, is jailed as the chief suspect.

However, Manning’s novel does not focus on the aftermath of the crime. Instead, she delves into the history of this complex, interracial relationship and details the events that led to the disintegration of the marriage and to Charlotte’s near-fatal attack. To her credit, Manning never resolves this “whodunit” and writes enough complex characters into the book to leave the identity of Charlotte’s attacker a mystery. While some readers might find that lack of closure to be unsatisfying, Manning suggests that who almost killed Charlotte is beside the point, and what is important and most interesting is how Charlotte and Milo came to meet their fate, as a couple and as individuals.

When the novel begins, Charlotte Halsey is a blonde, All-American coed who turns to strong men to help define her and free her from the controls of her conservative family. The smooth-talking Milo Robicheaux, the campus’ black star on the ski slopes, “steals” Charlotte away from his teammate Jack Sutherland, her first boyfriend. Both men prove to be ego-driven, controlling lovers who propel Charlotte’s life forward (and backward) at key moments in the story.

In part, Charlotte and Milo are drawn together by the drama that is stirred up after they choose each other and must face the disapproval of society, family and friends. After they marry, Charlotte suddenly finds herself the “white” wife of a “black” celebrity; the complicated dynamics that ensue make this novel most compelling. Manning uses this portrait of a difficult marriage to show how gender, race and class are part of the same perplexing knot of sexual and social identity that defines and confines human relationships as we live them.

As Milo’s career as an action movie star waxes, and Charlotte’s career as a model wanes and she becomes a mother, the marriage begins to fall apart under the weight of these dramatic shifts. At this point, when Jack Sutherland re-enters their lives, Charlotte is emotionally fragile and questioning Milo’s fidelity. She feels her life is falling apart and must cling to something to save herself. After a night fraught with misunderstandings and desperation, she becomes the victim of a vicious assault that leaves her speechless and helpless and trying to piece together—in her mind—what happened to her marriage.

Manning’s strength as a novelist lies in her ability to use dialogue and description to create memorable, realistic characters who, for the most part, transcend stereotypes. What Manning left me hungry for was a deeper understanding of Charlotte’s psyche and personality. The novel shows us that Charlotte is not a blonde bimbo on her husband’s arm, and yet except for the passages in which she describes the experience of new motherhood, the reader is left wanting to hear more depth from perspective, to feel deeply, as the novel wants us to, that beauty, love and loss takes us into territory and truth-telling that is more than skin deep.

 




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