Sunday, February 19, 2012

Passing Love by Jacqueline E. Luckett: A Review

Passing Love, Jacqueline E. Luckett. New York: Grand Central Publishing; Pg. 297; 2012.

Ah, Paris. The City of Love, the City of Lights. Paris looms large in the literary imagination. Writers from Charles Dickens to James Baldwin has written about this romantic city and now Jacqueline E. Luckett (Searching for Tina Turner) joins their ranks with her 2012 novel Passing Love. Paris takes center stage in this tale about two women whose lives intertwine despite passages of time, the separation of two continents, and family secrets.

Nicole-Marie Handy, fifty and divorced, travels to Paris after her friend’s death and a surprise marriage proposal from her married lover. A teenaged RubyMae Garrett escapes from her racially stultifying Mississippi home with an older jazz musician who takes her to New Orleans, New York, and finally to the fabled Paris of her dreams. Nicole and RubyMae’s lives intersect when Nicole finds a photograph of her father, a WWII veteran who also studied at the Sorbonne, among a Parisian street vendor’s wares. On the back of the photo is a message written to RubyMae in her father’s handwriting. After realizing that this RubyMae is the same mysterious and beautiful woman in a photograph she recollects from her childhood, she calls back home for answers. Rather than answering her questions, Nicole's mother instead mails a packet of letters which slowly reveal who RubyMae is and the connection that binds them all together.

The secrets Nicole discovers are needless to say rather predictable. Yet Luckett wields this story with enough of a steady hand, alternating between the present and 1950s Paris, that the cliches don’t overwhelm her tale. Luckett’s greatest achievement however is in the creation of RubyMae Garrett, a fascinating, complex creation of naked ambition and endearing vulnerability. RubyMae, desperate to escape the racism of her small home town, remakes herself into Ruby Garrett, a jazz singer who performs along with her lover, Arnett Dupree, who, unlike Ruby, is unable to escape his own insecurities as an artist in a town that is now swept away by bebop. After tragedy sweeps into their lives, Ruby strikes it on her own, attempting to pursue a career as a singer, sleeping with one of Arnett's old jazz compatriots to get a gig or to pay her rent. When Ruby's plans don't pan out (Ruby’s ambitions far outweigh her talent), the ambitious social climber changes her name again to Josette Dupree and decides to go after a wealthy Frenchman who might be able to provide her with the lifestyle she feels she deserves. Ruby’s determination to break out of the narrow confines of racial identity leads her to a decision that will also decide Nicole’s fate.

Luckett addresses the matter of light-skinned blacks who passed into white society a bit too late in the novel to give the subject the depth it deserves, yet she does foreshadow Ruby’s decision throughout the novel. As Luckett writes early on, “Though she had never seen that huge ball of light covered in such a way, RubyMae knew it was different and so, too, was she.” Refusing to allow others to define her, Ruby sets out on a path all her own regardless of social conventions. Luckett neither excuses Ruby’s decision nor entirely condemns it. Rather she writes a character whose actions are both infuriating as well as empathetic. RubyMae could easily have been turned into a villain, but her rather naive vulnerability makes her a deeply sympathetic character. RubyMae is a woman who is as much shaped by the times as she is one who is determined to transcend them. 

Nicole’s story, on the other hand, isn’t as entirely successful. It veers toward cliches (cheating men, a friend dead from cancer), but Luckett smartly limits Nicole’s story on her search for RubyMae, for it is RubyMae who gives the novel its power. She bursts from the pages with such verve and imagination that she towers above the novel’s weaknesses and becomes as intriguing as her adopted city itself.   

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