(Reviewed by Karma Sawka JUN 10, 2002)Spanning about twenty years of a woman's life, from her mid-teens to thirty-something, Whitegirl chronicles the first person narrative of Charlotte Halsey Robicheaux. Charlotte begins the story at the end: she was recently attacked and mauled in her Malibu home, and isn't sure if the police are right that her husband, film star Milo, who is now sitting in jail, was the assailant, because she was using both alcohol and drugs that night after having met with her old college boyfriend and doesn't remember what happened. Manning strings the mystery of Charlotte's assault throughout the novel; the reader will have a strong sense of who did it before finishing the book, even though Manning stops just short of bringing her characters or her reader to any sort of conclusion or closure.
The heart of the story, though, is the biracial relationship. Having experienced a couple of different biracial relationships, I wondered how Manning, a white girl herself, would handle the subject. For someone who describes herself as not being racist, Charlotte spends an awful lot of time recounting, with as many clichés as possible, the zebra stripe and ebony/ivory aspects of her relationship with African American Milo. Granted, as she outgrows her naïveté and becomes a bit savvier, Charlotte uses fewer black/white clichés and speaks more on how she handles society's reaction to her mixed marriage. Mr. and Mrs. Robicheaux have more than their share of obstacles, especially after he becomes a famous movie action hero and his new agent insists that the couple should not be seen together - not only should Milo be seen as single and available to his fans, but the Black community might not buy the first major African American action hero being married to a white girl.
Chronologically, Charlotte's story begins in a strict, fundamentally Christian, tense family where mom is an Avon representative and a former beauty queen, and dad is a secretly reformed alcoholic given to bouts of rage. Never allowed to discuss her questions about the religion that her entire family is structured upon, and practically forced by her mother to participate in beauty pageants, Charlotte yearns to leave her Bible school upbringing in California and escapes to a small college in Vermont. She lets loose like any other very sheltered teen would, rebelling by partying and sleeping with her new perfect blond boyfriend, Jack Sutherland.
Charlotte reveals throughout the novel that she is a boyfriend-abuse magnet. Her high school boyfriend can't take her breaking up with him and forces himself on her because she owes him one; her college relationship with the seemingly fabulous Jack is framed by verbal and physical abuse and obsession. Jack is the college ski team star and everyone on campus sees them as the prototypical perfect couple, meant to be together, just like Barbie and Ken. Charlotte doesn't feel strongly for Jack and is wishy-washy about making a move to leave him, until his violence finally pushes her to run away to New York with her roommate while he's out of town on a ski event.
Milo, another star on the college ski team, grows up black in a white town, with refined and well-educated parents who have strong academic aspirations for him and for his sister. He is well spoken and popular at the school, and can best be described as determined. In pursuit of a fast paced career and success, he never seems to examine his feelings about this identity and his race. One minor character accuses him of being an Oreo, black on the outside and white on the inside. Milo brushes such allegations aside all his life until he hires the politically charged agent who insists that Milo can be a black film superstar and half-jokingly calls Charlotte "Pink." The development of Milo's character is one of the most interesting parts of this debut novel.
Charlotte sees Milo on the streets of New York a few years after fleeing college and they recognize one another instantly. She, after a few years of aimless jobs and goal-less wandering, has become a new face on the runway circuit; he has recently left his Olympic medal-winning ski career to become a TV sports commentator. They begin a relationship in which things sometimes go left unspoken and they both seem to wonder if their differences will allow them to stay together. At one point early in their courtship, Milo tells Charlotte she has a strong spine and he admires her gutsiness. Somehow I wondered if he knew a different Charlotte than the one who was narrating the story. Ever since college, Charlotte comes across as indecisive, uninspired, not knowing what she wants, and not standing up for herself. Common Charlotte behavior: running away from things and people, pushing buttons, and shamelessly flirting; she doesn't come across as a strong woman at all. I found myself often furious with her choices and actions.
Ultimately, I couldn't relate at all to their lifestyle; bicoastal homes, all hours parties at by the pool with champagne and cocaine freely flowing, celebrity events every other night of the week What may have made this novel more accessible to the average American reader would be to keep the characters more real and away from the celebrity plane. It's one thing for many readers to relate to the biracial theme of the book without having, also, to relate to the Hollywood lifestyle of a movie star and his runway model wife.
In spite of its length, Whitegirl is a fast-paced novel. Readers will want to keep turning the pages in order to find out who assaulted Charlotte and to find out if she is able to keep her marriage together after yet another hurdle. And I would wager that readers will keep rooting for Milo until the very last word.
- Amazon readers rating: from 28 reviews
Read an excerpt for White Girl at MostlyFiction.com
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