Anne L Watson’s Pacific Avenue is one of those novels that would be easy to dismiss as mere romance. However, that would be unfair. Pacific Avenue is also a story about young adulthood, racial prejudice, middle-class expectations, and the psychological effects of war. Kathy is young, white, and middle-classed; the daughter of an idealistic college professor and a closet-racist of a housewife. Lacey is middle-aged, black and poor; an under-payed secretary whose own daughter has just left for college. The pair serve as narrators for the story that ensues, Kathy recounting the story of a failed interracial relationship with Richard Johnson; and Lacey providing an alternative view point on the same. One of those stories, then? Yes, to some extent. Watson’s novel falls strongly into the realm of literary fiction. In some intangible way, it reminds me of Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Unlike last week’s novel, this is just the sort of story I enjoy. So without further ado…
What is good about the novel? I loved Watson’s handling of the complex racial issues at hand. With depressing regularity, these sorts of stories are written as black vs white where whites are all immoral aggressors, and blacks are all moral victims. Pacific Avenue is not without its racists – from the unidentified stranger who stalks Kathy and Richard, to the young woman’s mother, who hides her viciousness behind a Stepford facade and expects her daughters to do likewise. However, the novel also discusses racism among people of colour; Richard fears that his estranged father would completely disown him if he knew that he were to marry a white girl.
If I don’t have even a little bit of racism myself, why did I think they’d be glad to have me in their family.
Kathy realizes that racism is not a “whites-only” attribute, but also that innocent open-mindedness does not preclude you from racism. Richard offers his own unique brand of prejudice. Guilt-ridden by the things he did in Vietnam, he finds himself tormented by the sight of Thu, the Vietnamese puppeteer who quickly becomes friends with Kathy. This is, arguably, less a symptom of racism an more one of PTSD – interacting with Thu aggravates Richard’s combat induced nightmares – but it also highlights the fact that feeling guilty about past interactions with people of a certain race or even feeling guilty about racist thoughts is not necessarily enough to prevent racist behaviour. This book addresses combat-related illnesses obliquely, as we are limited to Kathy’s thoughts and perceptions about Richard’s behaviour. If you are looking for a firsthand account of PTSD, this is not the book for you. However, if you are interested in a book about its’ effects on the family, it just might be.
Next up, are the two narrators really necessary? I think so. Had this story been told from Kathy’s perspective alone she might quickly have become insufferable. What Lacey brings is the voice of experience: she has been poor, been the victim of prejudice, and she both appreciates and sees beyond Kathy’s naivete. She can commiserate, but can also criticize when necessary. Unfortunately, Lacey’s voice is used rather sparingly and serves primarily to offer counterpoint to Kathy’s voice. Consequently, her own plot doesn’t get much development. Perhaps constructing a counter narrative for Lacey would have confused the plot too much, but done well, I think it would have added depth rather than obscuring it.
Finally, what about the Vietnam elements? Admittedly, as a Canadian my own attitude toward the Vietnam War is probably different than that of an American reader. My country did not fight, had no draft, and instead became home to a number of draft dodgers. Thus, my reaction to these sequences is almost certainly tinged by my Canadianess. With that said, I think that these are fairly well handled. It is clear that Richard feels a great deal of conflict about the things he did and his reasons for going, and that his fellow Americans have an equally conflicted reaction to the young veteran. On the one hand, there is Kathy’s brother-in-law Sam, who becomes both a source of support for the young couple largely because his own brother was killed in combat. On the other hand, there is Kathy herself, who is all too aware of the soldiers’ reputation. Thu presents her own sense of conflict, having been forced to leave Vietnam because of her relationship with a white reporter. She neither condemns nor blames, having experienced the threat of violence from both sides. She is, arguably, the “Uncle Tom” of the book, which is why I am cautious about judging her. To me, her forgiveness seems justified. To someone with a vested interest in that war, however, she may simply be an apologist.
So, at the end of the day, should you read this book? Yes, especially if you are a fan of literary fiction. This is probably the best book I’ve reviewed so far, blending both a meaningful story and excellent writing.
Overall rating: 4.5/5
Read it if: You’re looking for a literary love story with a strong racial component.
Skip it if: You think that literary fiction is pretentious or you’re infuriated by the idea of a middle-class white girl telling a story about racism.
Special note to those of you reading on the Android Kindle app: there may be a formatting issue specific to this platform that may get in the way of understanding. Specifically, the novel frequently relies on internal monologues to convey the narrators’ thoughts and emotions regarding the events of the novel. As a fan of Modernist novels, I have no issue with reading internal monologues along side dialogues, so long as it is clear what I am reading. Unfortunately, my Android app removed the italicization from these sections, making it appear that the author is simply slipping between present and past tense. This error is not present in the PC or Chrome versions of the app and is presumably also fixed on the actual Kindle. Apparently this can be fixed by having the author reformat the italicized sections in html. Since it seems to be an Android-specific issue, I didn’t remove the customary half a star.