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Problems in Living
ISBN: 1413723330

By Melissa Brown Levine
Review by: Grace Tierney

12/01/04

When women rave about their favorite books what often emerges as the reason is one character in particular: Bridget Jones, Jane Eyre, and Scarlett O’Hara spring to mind. For me, their ranks now include a feisty contemporary African-American woman called Lana from Problems in Living because three weeks after finishing the novel I can still hear her tender, sexy, “take no prisoners” voice in my head.

From the opening scene of coitus interruptus to the explosive but ultimately uplifting ending, her story, and that of her meeker sister Eve, is one of struggle to escape their dominating mother’s influence. Melissa Brown Levine throws every trouble she can at her characters, to the point where I counted my own blessings. They have a junkie wife-beating brother, fertility issues, abortion, compulsive behavior, jealousy, arranged marriage, terminal illness, racism, motherhood, grief, betrayal, and sibling rivalry. I think the only one she missed was the equal pay issue.

While the male characters are well drawn and diverse, this book belongs to the women. That’s epitomized by the non-gratuitous sex scenes which are refreshingly realistic and capture the various female experiences better than any I’ve read before.

There’s little description of settings but this is compensated for by extremely well observed dialogue and characters. Lana’s Mama brainwashes her daughters from an early age with rules for womanhood like ‘sex is for men’s pleasure’ and ‘always put up money for a rainy day but never tell your husband’. The latter was a surprise as it echoes wisdom from my own mother, however Lana rejects her mother’s judgment of her darker skin and her twisted vision of life. She finds warmth and approval from Estelle, a family friend, instead and movingly learns new loving rules of life from a mother of the bride at a wedding which she is photographing for her work.

Meanwhile Eve fights depression and low self-esteem as her legacy from their Mama. She convinces herself that, despite her longing for a girl with which to share the secrets of womanhood, her pregnancy must result in a boy child.

Thankfully the threads of this complex plot and the many inter-family conflicts are resolved deftly by the author. As for how Lana turns out, well I think that will be best told her own words and unique voice.

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