Only sisters are real in 'Sisters & Lovers'

May 26, 1994|By L. D. Buckner | L. D. Buckner,Sun Staff Writer

Reading Connie Briscoe's first novel is like going home. It's long on intimacy and warmth, making the African-American female reader as comfortable as a family friend come to visit during a reunion.

In the succinctly titled "Sisters & Lovers," the former refers to the Jordan siblings: Evelyn, Beverly and Charmaine. The latter are their men who just can't seem to get the relationship thing right.

Ms. Briscoe, a Washingtonian, peppers her story with geographic and emotional specifics, tapping the classism that scars the fictional sisters' relationship as well as the city's real-life black urban and suburban community.

Evelyn, the eldest sister, is a 37-year-old buppie poster child with a Benz, a lawn, two bright kids and the most redeeming male of the lot. Her husband is set on risking their idyllic life by starting his own firm with a fellow black attorney.

Two years younger but a world apart is Charmaine, a secretary who would be an accountant except that she left college to get married and is raising a 4-year-old son with no help from her second and shiftless liar of a husband. The free-flowing contempt between these two keeps the tale from languishing in three-little-pigs-style sibling harmony.

Montgomery County dweller Evelyn looks down her nose at Charmaine, who lives in a small house on the Northeast Washington-Prince George's County line. Charmaine, though envious of Evelyn's white-gloved life, snipes at her: "Some blacks when they get a little money still want to live around their own kind."

It's hard to put a finger on Evelyn DuMont's pride quotient. While she touts her husband as a premier black attorney, and discourages her sisters from dating white men, she's quick to say the DuMonts are "middle class, not black middle class"; she cringes at the thought of her son twisting his hair into locks. Appearance is everything, and she just knows subdivision gossip has her family lumped in with the neighborhood's other black family, whose alcoholic patriarch accidentally set the house afire.

She's a snob, no doubt about it. But the book recognizes the difficulty of pressing for the finer things without being labeled somehow "less black."

Some of Evelyn's fears are grounded in reality. She's against her spouse's business dreams not only because the start-up debt would risk her Benz, but because, she says: "It's still harder for black people to get loans, even when they are financially secure. We would probably have to use everything we own as collateral. . . . " She seems more vulnerable than her baby sister Charmaine, who's been toughened up by the check-to-check life.

Beverly, the middle child, is the mediator in the family and the most revealed character in the book. She's an intriguing but snake-bitten sort, the kind who plans to mete revenge on a cheating boyfriend by stalking into the night and slashing his BMW ragtop, only to lock her keys in her own car. You scream and flail along with her on her relationship roller coaster, but her sisterly love is almost smothered in the prolific male-bashing that accompanies her series of bad dates.

In searching for the fine side of the lovers in the book, it might be granted that Charmaine's Clarence is useless but true; Evelyn's Kevin may or may not be faithful, but he's hard-working, and Beverly's dates at least have jobs. But if one lives by the "If you can't say something nice about someone . . . " adage, one should stop there.

Ms. Briscoe employs the nasty habit most storytellers across every medium have of either bashing or ignoring black men -- though, to be fair, no man is safe under Ms. Briscoe's pen. At first and throughout, it's the phrase "black men" that's most often adjacent to words like "pitiful." But by mid-tale, thanks to a foray by Beverly, white men become non grata, and by the penultimate chapter, "no man on earth" is worth his salt.

From its Terry McMillanesque cover to its women's support group, "Sisters" begs for comparison to "Waiting to Exhale." Each chronicles the adventures of striking, prototypical African-American women. Each dwells on male shortcomings.

The critical difference is that most of Ms. Briscoe's males are one-, maybe two-dimensional jerks. Where Ms. McMillan's characters were genuinely baffled by trifling behavior, Ms. Briscoe's are more resigned to it, but they come mercifully short of wallowing in lack-of-a-man syndrome. For that, even as Ms. Briscoe's lovers slither to and fro, her sisters are people worth knowing.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Sisters & Lovers"

Author: Connie Briscoe

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 339 pages, $22

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