Review: Brown Girls

Daphne Palasi Andreades's titular Brown Girls live in "the dregs of Queens." They are Jamaican, Dominican, Pakistani, Filipino, Chinese. They are ambitious and bold and sometimes afraid of what the world might hold for them. They tell their story, in Andreades's debut novel, with wit and candor and a blazingly original collective voice.

Andreades begins her novel when the girls are young: navigating the hallways of elementary and middle school, walking the neighborhood together. In brief chapters with titles like "Family Parties" and "Your Own Kind," she takes readers through the girls' collective journey to young adulthood. Some of them leave Queens for prestigious high schools in Manhattan, making the trek on the train to a different life, a different world, every weekday for years. They fight with their mothers about all the usual things: clothes, boys, school, which careers they should (or can) choose. They start to see the emerging differences between those who leave--or long to--and those who stay.

Andreades follows her characters through college, graduate school, additional training for their careers as nurses, teachers, bookkeepers, PR executives, professors. She sensitively explores the rifts that arise between the girls who build lives in the neighborhood--out of choice or necessity--and the girls who manage to get out. They may move to California, Chicago, Berlin, Beijing, but they always come back to Queens eventually, for holidays or for good. They call one another, meet up for a drink after dinner, catch up on each other's lives, while never saying the things they really mean to say. They are grown women, caught between the world they came from and the wider one they must deal with their own, forever pulled between the present and the past.

In some ways, Andreades's characters are of course particular: brown girls from immigrant families who hail from all over the globe, living at the back end of Queens in the early years of the 21st century. In some ways their stories are absolutely their own: Nadira, Kim, Zainab, Trish, fighting for their individuality in a world that tries to meld them together. But their voices also are the voice of anyone who has ever grown up and tried to leave home: anyone who struggles with gratitude and frustration, anger and love, for the place and the people they came from.

Told with crackling prose and vivid detail, with humor so sharp it cuts, Brown Girls is a tribute to a neighborhood most people forget, and a group of young women determined to make their mark on an indifferent world. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Shelf Talker: Daphne Palasi Andreades tells the story of an immigrant Queens neighborhood in her fiercely original debut novel.

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