July Book Club: SILVER SPARROW by Tayari Jones

The July EDIWTB book club selection was Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones.

Jones Silver Sparrow is about James Witherspoon, a bigamist living in Atlanta in the 80s. He has two families – the public, legitimate one – which consists of his wife Laverne and his daughter Chaurisse, and the secret, illegitmate family – "wife" Gwen and daughter Dana. Chaurisse and Dana are the same age and often travel in the same circles, even though James' public family is better off and enjoys more luxuries than his private one.

Dana narrates the first half of the book, and we come to understand her love for both of her parents, as well as her obsession with her half-sister, for she has known about Chaurisse since she was little. Dana is pretty and smart, but she always feels inferior, like an outsider. She and her mother often stalk Chaurisse and Laverne, just to see what their lives are like, what they look like, etc. The second half of the book is told from Chaurisse's perspective. She and her mother are unaware of Dana and Gwen's existence. All they know is the middle-class life they've lived as a family of three.

James' relationships with Gwen and Laverne are very different – one is built on passion, one is built on responsibility and devotion. Similarly, James is a different father with Dana than with Chaurisse. But this is really a story of four women looking for the same thing: to be cherished, to feel special, to belong. Those universal desires are what makes the story heartbreaking, and what makes each character compelling and worthy of empathy.

About 2/3 of the way through the book, Dana and Chaurisse's lives intersect, and the story builds to the inevitable collision that the reader has expected from the beginning. Jones' writing is deceptively simple – Silver Sparrow is a smooth, easy read, but not a light one. It is full of narrative tension that propels the reader through the emotional minefields – current and inevitable – that the bigamist's life necessarily creates.

All that said, I finished the book a few days ago, and surprisingly, it hasn't really stayed with me. It didn't have the longevity that I expected it would.

Overall, I am really glad I read Silver Sparrow. I think that the attention it has received is deserved, and I am glad that I got to experience it. I'd love to read more by Tayari Jones.

Thanks so much to Algonquin for facilitating the EDIWTB book club for Silver Sparrow. And now… let's hear from you! What did you think of Silver Sparrow?

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21 Comments

  • Josie
    July 12, 2011 - 8:38 am | Permalink

    I finished the book last night and liked it. Didn’t love it but glad I read it.
    Gayle- one aspect of the book you didnt talk about was about Raleigh and his whole relationship with both families. I found it all to be weird. Yes, he and James were like brothers but I kept wanting him to just get his own life and move on from them. It was all a little creepy to me how Raleigh was there for everything!
    I also felt like the transition from Dana to Chaurisse narration was a little abrupt and I felt like I was left hanging, wondering what was going through Dana’s head in the last half of the book, after getting to know her in the beginning part. The epilogue did help somewhat with that though. I felt sad for her in the end. She so obviously just wanted her fathers love and attention and had to settle for “crumbs of kindness.” It wasn’t her fault she was born into the circumstances she was born into yet had to pay the consequences.
    I also grew up in Atlanta in the 80s and found the depiction of this Atlanta to be vastly different than what I remember Atlanta in the 80s to be. Very interesting to read a completely different point of view of this time and place.
    This was probably not a book I would have picked up on my own so I’m glad I got a chance to read it.

  • July 12, 2011 - 8:45 am | Permalink

    I finished the book over the weekend while recovering from a horrible summer cold.
    That said, I adored this book. Within the first few pages, ok, the first sentence, this book had my attention. I was drawn to the honesty of the character’s feelings, their story. I wanted to know more.
    I plan on posting my review of this book tomorrow but it’s a given: this is one of my favorite books of the summer.

  • July 12, 2011 - 9:17 am | Permalink

    I really loved this book for the most part, until I got to the end. It felt like she reached her word count and then just said “ok, let’s wrap it up!” you know? Not that I need every ending to have every little thing wrapped up with a bow but I feel like there was very little thought put into how this would end. In fact, for a couple days after I finished I kept going to pick it up again because it didn’t seem like I had gotten to the end…

  • Larissa
    July 12, 2011 - 10:18 am | Permalink

    I thought it was a really interesting commentary on women’s relationships in general. Whether you’re talking about Dana’s mother living in that girls home before she met James, or you’re talking about James’ mother’s relationship with Laverne. How these women relate to one another and accept their place in life is interesting.
    I too thought that the switch from Dana to Chaurisse was abrupt, and I actually didn’t feel as though Chaurisse’s voice was as developed. I had a hard time imagining and remembering the narrator was different. I think that Dana’s character was built out with such a clear voice, that Chaurisse got lost. Well, maybe that was the point.
    I agree with Gayle and thought the sense of longing and wanting to be loved flowed through each character, even through James and Raleigh. But in a way, each character really gives up true love. Raleigh never finds it because he is never accepted, James never is able to settle, Gwen never gets full commitment, and the girls are always grasping for something that is just out of their reach. In a way, that makes it tragic.
    Overall, I liked the book, and perhaps it warrants another read to get more out of it. I didn’t find myself thinking much about it afterwards either – but would recommend it as a summer read.

  • Marilyn N.
    July 12, 2011 - 10:47 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed the book, but like Gayle, I think it is one I will forget relatively quickly. But it was a nice beach read – thought-provoking without being too difficult.
    While the focus of the book was on the women, I found myself focusing on the selfishness of James. His betrayal of his wife was obvious, also of his baby mama/fake wife. But he also cheated his best friend out of his own life, and his mother out of knowing one of her grandchildren.
    Raleigh was, for me, a very sympathetic character, who was sadly underdeveloped. He gave himself completely not only to James, but to both families, and sacrificed love in the bargain. It seemed as though he and Gwen might have had real feelings for one another, but they were not able to act on them because each stayed loyal to James.
    Finally, I agree with Stephanie above – the last part of the book left me cold. There were any number of more satisfying endings than that which Jones employed, but she seemed as though she had gotten tired of the book, her characters, of writing. I thought the climatic scene at the gas station was well done, but then the book fell off the cliff. It’s too bad.

  • Elisabeth
    July 12, 2011 - 11:15 am | Permalink

    Silver Sparrow left me with mixed emotions. I liked the story very much but found the ending to be very disappointing. James placed a huge burden on Dana by expecting her to keep the secret. It was interesting to see how a bigamist manages a lifestyle with 2 families, and how the wives and children manage the relationships. I tried to understand why James wanted to take on this type of life. In the end I couldn’t help but believe that he was a very selfish person. He wanted it all. How was he capable of handling the financial burden on his salary? He planned that huge party with 2 college tuitions looming. This bothered me a lot, I am not sure why.
    Raleigh was an interesting character, he was likable yet, willing to live in the shadows. There seemed to be something off. How could Gwen tolerate having him around ALL the time. She was sharing James with Laverne already.
    While the change of voice was abrupt, I was glad of the opportunity to see the story from both perspectives. Laverne’s choices and outlook
    was not what I expected.
    I don’t believe Silver Sparrow is YA fiction, but I think it would be perfect for this audience.
    All in all, I am glad to have had the opportunity, thank you Gayle! any book that leaves me not only remembering it, but thinking about it, weeks after I have finished it, has struck a chord with me. There was something disturbing about about what people are willing to accept and settle for. Life is all about compromise. And, one way or another I think we can all relate to that!

  • July 12, 2011 - 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I posted my review of Silver Sparrow today: http://www.3rsblog.com/2011/07/book-talk-silver-sparrow-by-tayari.html Reading some of the comments here makes me think of a few things I didn’t address there.
    I agree that readers really don’t get a sense of why James maintains this double life, and that Raleigh is a bit underdeveloped. However, since the narrative is told from the perspectives of two adolescent girls – both of whom are more closely linked to their mothers anyway – I think both of those narrative choices are in keeping.
    I’m glad I had the chance to read this. I think it has some crossover potential to the older YA audience, but it’s primarily adult fiction. The characters were able to evoke my sympathy even when they weren’t entirely likable, and Jones succeeded in giving both of her narrators distinctive voices and perspectives without significantly changing her writing style when she shifted. Overall, I thought it was an unusual take on a not-entirely-unusual story.

  • Susan B
    July 12, 2011 - 12:21 pm | Permalink

    This was a quick, enjoyable read. I liked that we got to see the overall situation through the eyes of both daughters but wondered why the book had to be split in two. The narrative could have flipped back and forth and perhaps had more impact, especially around some of the parts where the two girls met and interacted.
    Dana being a secret, and being constantly reminded of this, was a horrible situation and obviously contributed to her unhealthy relationship with Marcus. At times it seemed that James was doing the best he could with a bad situation but then Dana would once again get pushed aside in favour of Chaurrise and it was clear that her self-esteem was being destroyed piece by piece. The “surveilling” by Gwen and Dana set up a sense that a confrontation was inevitable by the end of the book. It was as if Gwen and Dana couldn’t stay away – it was almost a compulsion – and you knew something bad was coming.
    It was interesting to get a good sense of who Dana was and who she thought Chaurrise was and then have those characterizations shift in the second half of the book. It explored the idea that who we think we are may not be how we are perceived by others and that our perceptions of others may not be entirely accurate.
    The scene at the gas station was very well done – the tension built well throughout and ultimately it felt like a punch in the stomach! Even though I shouldn’t have been surprised by James’ actions, I was still shocked that he would treat Dana so poorly when things came to a head.
    I agree with others that this is a book that hasn’t stuck with me since I finished it, but I did enjoy it and would recommend it to others. Thanks to Gayle for organizing the book club!

  • TLB
    July 12, 2011 - 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed reading this book as well. I found the writing to be intense, smooth, and engaging. I thought the story was fascinating and generated some questions for me: I wonder how this book would have been different if James had not married Gwen, and simply kept her and their daughter a secret without that legal (or in this case, illegal) bond?
    I would have loved to know more about Raleigh – why was he always taking pictures, and what did this symbolize?
    Toward the end, I began to feel a little claustrophobic after being inside the heads of two girls for so long – in fact I was a little disoriented by the narration because it seemed to (but didn’t actually) alternate between first person and third person. I recall instances of the girls’ describing their mothers’ feelings in detail that felt a little “third person.”
    I thought the alternating of point of view was great (Dana/Chaurisse)- it made me think of “Rashomon,” where we are reminded that events appear totally differently to different people. The mothers seemed so powerful to each other but we were exposed to their needy, flawed sides as well.
    Overall a good read – thanks Gayle !

  • Carol
    July 12, 2011 - 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed the book, but like many others had a few issues. Although I didn’t find the switch from Dana to Chaurrise abrupt, I did find myself often forgetting that it was now Chaurrise’s head that I was in, not Dana’s.
    I got why Dana and Gwen spied on the other family, but I never really understood why Dana decided become friends with Chaurrise, or was that just an accident? I also didn’t understand why Gwen decided to “out” James when and how she did (I don’t have the book in front of me, so was it revenge for his treatment of Dana at the gas station?).
    Thanks, Gayle, for introducing me to a book that I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. I’ve enjoyed reading your review and all the comments.

  • Marcia
    July 12, 2011 - 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Silver Sparrow was an interestng story of he two families of a bigamist ,one legitimate daughter,Chaurisse, and the other the
    secret daughter,Dana. I thought the book was written in an interesting
    way with Dana’s point of view in the first half then getting the story from
    Chaurisse in the second half . Chaurisse calls Dana one of the silver
    girls from a song, “Sail on, silver girl….your time has come to shine.”
    These were the “in” girls. Dana knows about Chaurisse and although
    she stalks her also becomes friends with her.
    I thought the ending was sad and once the mothers confront each other,
    it couldn’t have ended happily. Dana says “when you see your Mother shattered,
    there’s no putting her back together.” I wanted Gwendolyn to marry Raleigh
    but James was really the stronger character. I wanted a happier ending but
    with all the complicated relationships that just wasnt realistic. Thanks for
    the opportunity to read this book.

  • July 12, 2011 - 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed reading this book. It was beautifully yet simply written and I was amazed at Jones’ skill at conveying both at the same time. I went to a reading featuring Tayari Jones last week and she mentioned that minor characters should garner enough interest that you want to have them step out on their own and tell their own story. I got that from Raleigh. He was a frustrated character, and so stunted from his childhood that I understood why he might behave as he did. Even if Gwen had said yes, I doubt if they would have had a real chance considering how they both felt about James.
    My mom and aunt also read this and we talked a bit about the book and that James was probably the character who came closest to being complete, and everything revolved around him. I think he did what he did almost as his right, especially with the way his mother spoiled him.
    I really wanted the girls to be able to have each other as friends as they so wanted to be, but it seemed they were least in this scenario. Dana especially got the short end of the stick.

  • Miriam
    July 12, 2011 - 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Gayle for the opportunity to read Silver Sparrow. I did like the cover with the 2 sparrow (?) feathers- maybe representing the two girls- one the accepted, legal daughter and the other one in the shadows. The viewpoint from one then the other daughter was interesting but I, like many, found Dana’s voice to be more compelling. All in all I thought it an interesting book but not one I will recommend. I thought all the characters made rather poor choices and that would continue with Dana’s child at the end- being raised by a single parent. I was wishing that Raleigh’s offer to marry Gwen would have worked out but maybe that was unrealistic.
    An interesting read but not one I will rave about.
    Thanks, Algonquin!

  • Michelle B
    July 12, 2011 - 5:45 pm | Permalink

    I had a hard time getting into this book and have so-so feelings after. I never really thought James’ two families as him committing bigamy, since Gwen knew her marriage wasn’t ‘real’ – more a sad situation where a married man has a mistress and a child with her. Splitting hairs? probably.
    I liked the voice of Dana better than Chaurisse. I wish the author had structured her book as alternating voices rather than the book half and half … then we could see the two sides to the story and the parallel character development.
    Raleigh was a sad character to me. He was always on the outside of each family, and I thought he deserved to have his own wife and children.
    I though the two scenes – the gas station and the confrontation in the salon – were my favorite scenes – full of tension and interaction.
    I agree with all the above readers that the ending was weak. I will pass along this book to others and see what they think of the book.
    Thanks Gayle and Algonquin!

  • Lindsay
    July 12, 2011 - 7:50 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Gayle, for the opportunity to read this book. Unlike many of the other reviewers, however, I didn’t like Silver Sparrow. I couldn’t get into the characters, and like others, felt Raleigh’s hanging on to be a bit creepy and unrealistic. I also found the ending to be too abrupt given how slow I felt it was to get there. I really wanted to like this book, but I found it hard to get into and it didn’t really sustain my attention the way I like a book to do. I found the idea compelling and I just kept wanting to get lost in the story, but it never happened. I was sadly happy when I got to the end. It was not that the reading was challenging, it was that the story never really gripped me or made me want to turn the next page to find out what was going to happen. I am sorry that this book didn’t do it for me. Given how many people liked the story I have enjoyed reading all the opinions.

  • Sarah
    July 13, 2011 - 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I found “Silver Sparrow” to be very compelling, and profoundly sad. Like others, I struggled with the change of narrator from Dana to Chaurisse half way through. I sometimes became downright confused, trying to remember whose voice I was hearing. But I thought that the technique worked well in a lot of ways. I definitely “liked” Dana and Gwen better during the first half of the book, and then felt the opposite once Chaurisse was narrating. So that worked well. I liked Dana less during the second half of the book, but my sympathy for her grew, as I realized what a victim of terrible circumstances she was.
    I found James to be utterly unlikable. His treatment of Dana was downright cruel. While he seemed to consider himself to be responsible for both girls, he treated Dana terribly, and this troubled me greatly. Raleigh’s complicity cased me to dislike an otherwise likable character.
    This was a great choice, Gayle. Thank you so much for facilitating.

  • July 14, 2011 - 8:28 am | Permalink

    I agree with so much said before, I enjoyed the book (couldn’t put it down when I was reading it) but did forget it pretty quickly. I guess I’m not too bright because I was completely surprised when the girl in the drugstore was Dana. It’s a book I probably wouldn’t have chosen myself but I’m glad I read it. Thanks so much Gayle for organizing this!

  • July 15, 2011 - 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Many of my thoughts about Silver Sparrow have already been stated in the above comments. I had a difficult time with the switch in perspective. Like the others I kept forgetting that it wasn’t Dana anymore. It was a relatively quick read for me, but also one that I haven’t spent a whole lot of time thinking about after finishing it.
    I was surprised by Ronalda’s comment (I can’t remember exactly what it was) that led me to believe that bigamy was/is actually quite common. I was also very proud of Dana and her mother when they pulled the rug out from under James.
    I think if I were really looking for themes to discuss and explore, Silver Sparrow would be full of them. The truth is that when I picked up Silver Sparrow I just wanted to be entertained. Overall, the book fit the bill.
    Thank you for including me in this months discussion.

  • July 19, 2011 - 7:49 am | Permalink

    Thanks, everyone, for the great discussion. Even if this book wasn’t for everyone, it definitely sparked a good conversation. There’s a lot here to talk about – the way the book was constructed; the role of Raleigh; who held the power among the 2 moms and sisters; etc. I agree that the end felt sudden and was unsatisfying, given the buildup of tension beforehand. Thanks for participating in the EDIWTB book club!

  • July 20, 2011 - 9:24 pm | Permalink

    I’m here I’m here!! Sorry I’m so late with the review. Thank you so much for the book club Gayle! I never would have picked up this book on my own which is why I love the chance to participate on your blog.
    I really liked this book from beginning to end. I could not believe how a man like James could lead a double life for so long. On the surface, he’s not an attractive or arrogant man, but as I kept reading, I felt that maybe he kept his secret and still supported his families as best he could because it was the right thing to do by both women and both daughters.
    I loved the ending. It showed how Dana’s perserverance and determined-ness to succeed and surpass her background and she came out AHEAD of her half-sister in the end. HOW ’bout them apples I wanted to ask? I empathized with Dana’s yearning to learn more about AND even be-friend her half-sister and I really disliked Chaurrise’s and her mother’s attitude of entitlement when they found out about James’ secret life.
    What’s stuck with me is thinking about how many men actually do this in real life. What kind of person can keep that kind of secret for so many years?

  • July 21, 2011 - 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Wow, this sounds like a really interesting book. This isn’t a topic I think I have ever read about, which really intrigues me.

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