Monday, November 3, 2014

The Wedding by Dorothy West


Although Dorothy West was a writer of the Harlem Renaissance (1917-1935), The Wedding was published in 1995. I was surprised to learn that The Wedding was her second novel.

At first glance, The Wedding is about Shelby, the beautiful, blond, blue-eyed, African American young woman from the upper middle class Coles family. Shelby has defied her family's wishes and plans to marry a white jazz musician from New York, Meade. It is August of 1953, and the extended family have gathered on Martha's Vineyard in the affluent African American summer community known as the Oval for Shelby and Meade's wedding. The novel deals with the different generations of the Coles family, showing how this family came to have its prominent place in society.

Amid the story of the past, there are plenty of events happening around the time that the wedding is to take place. Lute McNeil has managed to use his connections to rent the house next door to the Coles. He wants Shelby and the status her family represents and has decided that she will be the new mother to his three young daughters. Lute is volatile, sexy, and mysterious, and Shelby has some pre-wedding jitters. Her family considers Lute unsuitable. His mother was a prostitute and his standing in the community does not equal the Coles' (he makes furniture for white people), and his skin is dark.

Then there are Shelby's parents, who have a complicated marriage, which is on the brink. Corrine, Shelby's mother is ignorant of this fact. Shelby's great grandmother, known as Gram, is in her nineties and has lived quite a life. Gram worries because she has an uneasy feeling that that something bad is about to happen;she feels death in the air.

West takes the reader to earlier generations of the Coles family. The stories of Shelby's parents, grandparents, and great grandparents are all integral to seeing how the decisions, sacrifices and marriages, often not based on love, have made the Coles the family that they are. And we see how difficult it is for Shelby's parents to face the fact that not only is Shelby marrying a white man, but she is marrying outside her class. To the stalwarts in the family, skin color and class mean everything.

Dorothy West's writing style is simple yet lyrical, and the story is so much more than I'd anticipated. After the first few pages, I knew that I was in the hands of an expert storyteller. I highly recommend the complex, thought provoking and wonderful The Wedding.

I am new to the work of Dorothy West (1907-1998). In reading about her life, I learned that during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, Miss West wrote short stories and poetry. She was also an editor of two literary magazines. Her first novel, The Living Is Easy, was published after the Harlem Renaissance, in 1948. At that time, she left New York for her family's summer home at Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, where she lived year round for the rest of her life. 

In 1982, The Feminist Press reprinted The Living Is Easy, which introduced Miss West to a new generation. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday, approached Miss West about another novel. Mrs. Onassis became the editor for Miss West's work in progress that would become The Wedding. Although Mrs. Onassis died before the publication of The Wedding, Miss West dedicated the novel to her.

Writer Dorothy West

Have you read The Wedding?

2 comments:

  1. I'm so glad this lived up to the promise of the opening paragraph you posted recently! I have not read Dorothy West, but will be adding The Wedding to my list. Thanks for introducing me to this author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for your comment, JoAnn! The Wedding is a little misleading in a way because it's not a big book in size, but there is so much to it. I hope you enjoy it!

    ReplyDelete