Tuesday, September 6, 2022

The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West

The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West begins when Sara takes the bus to Memphis to escape life in Chicago after her father’s death. She’s young, single, and pregnant so Mama Sugar, Sara’s close friend Naomi’s aunt and the proprietor of The Scarlet Poplar rooming house, a haven in Memphis’s Black community welcomes Sara as a cook and helps her when her son Lebanon is born.

West’s debut novel Saving Ruby King was one of my favorite books of 2020 and I love learning Lebanon’s and Sara’s backstories. Those who’ve read Saving Ruby King will enjoy finding out more about the character Sara’s early life. Usually, when a prequel arrives, I suggest reading it first, but in this case, I’m glad I read about Ruby first. I enjoyed learning about Ruby for herself then reading about Sara and learning more about why she acted as she did. There’s a whole lot of hurt in both novels, but they also offer the beauty of community, friendship, and love. Whichever one you choose to read first will inform the other. Each novel stands alone and both beg you to discuss with a book club or on a walk with a friend.

In The Two Lives of Sara, Sara tries to close herself off from emotional entanglements since she’s been hurt deeply by childhood trauma and the assault that resulted in her son’s birth. It’s even difficult for her to hold Lebanon since he reminds her of her past. Mama Sugar and her family and friends treat Lebanon and Sara with loving kindness and soon Sara begins to respond.

“I scoop Lebanon up from the high chair and set him on my lap and the crying stops. . . .

“See, when you patient and happy. He’s patient and happy like that, Sara-girl,” says Mama Sugar.

It’s odd to feel something resembling happiness looking at him. And he lays his head on my shoulder. Yes. He has my nose and lips. He dozes. Curly hair tickles my neck. He doesn’t seem heavy, at least not as heavy as he did other mornings.”

Soon the heaviness of her earlier life and its burdens start to lift from Sara’s shoulders and she befriends Mama Sugar’s bookish grandson William. Through their connection, she falls in love with Jonas, William’s challenging teacher. 

The community welcomes Sara and Lebanon and Sara wants more. “Friendships are strange evolving collections of laughter and fights and secrets, this rarified brew of humanity you choose to share with another person. And I want that again. To feel close to someone. To share with someone. The way I did in Chicago.” 

Will her desires be enough to overcome the hurt of the church when Black life in Memphis is so tied to the church? 

“I believed when I was young, when I walked past my church’s doors, nothing could hurt me, but that was a silly, childish notion, to let a building, a church, make me feel safe. . . . all I see is Calvary Hope Christian Church, a place that saw the best and worst of who I was, the best and worst of everyone that walked through its doors.”

Throughout it all, the music, the food, the traditions of HBCU schools like Morehouse and Spelman, and the difficulties of being Black in Memphis in the early 1960s make this novel sing with authenticity. When Jonas and Sara stop at a Memphis housing project, Sara says, “Use to think we had it better up North. You know we got a housing project named after Ida B. Wells? She spent her whole life fighting injustice, and they slapped her name on a building that keeps it going.”

“White people build these places to keep us and them separate. Put the names of our people on them like they’ve done us a service. It’s disgraceful,” says Jonas.

What happens next is Sara’s story to tell and is a poignant, heartfelt tale of resilience when love may not be enough. It demonstrates that Catherine Adel West is no one-hit-wonder. This reader will be anxiously awaiting her next effort.

Summing it Up: Read The Two Loves of Sara to immerse yourself in the food, music, church traditions, and camaraderie of early 1960s Black Memphis. Relish the complexity of every character in the novel from wounded, yet strong Sara to those who make poor decisions and men and women who encourage others to survive and thrive. Select The Two Lives of Sara for your book club for a discussion that will practically lead itself.  This novel of love, trauma, resiliency, religion, and prejudice is both a page-turner and a novel you’ll long contemplate.

Rating: Five Stars

Publication Date: September 6, 2022

Categories: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Grits, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Author Website: https://www.catherineadelwest.com/ 

Book Club Discussion Kit: https://www.catherineadelwest.com/uploads/1/3/1/4/131492292/two_lives_of_sara_book_club_kit.pdf (I’ve led hundreds of book discussions and this is the most complete, beautiful, and inspiring book club kit I’ve seen. It begs you to select the book for your book club.)

Read an Excerpt: https://preview.aer.io/The_Two_Lives_of_Sara-NDQ5MTA3?social=1&retail=1&emailcap=0

Author Interview: https://www.shelf-awareness.com/max-issue.html?issue=476#m991 

What Others are Saying:

Booklist: “West writes with charming precision and intention. Every character is a beautiful, relatable complication. Both masterfully suspenseful and certain to tug at the reader's heartstrings, The Two Lives of Sara solidifies West as a literary force.”  --Booklist (Starred Review)

Kirkus Reviews:  https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/catherine-adel-west/the-two-lives-of-sara/ 

“A gripping reflection on our need to be loved and our fear of rejection, Catherine Adel West crafts a timeless and complex narrative of family, loss, and what it means to lose faith in religion and ourselves. Sara King and the family she finds at the Scarlet Poplar will stay with you long after the final page.” —Lane Clarke, author of Love Times Infinity

"The Two Lives of Sara is a stellar follow-up for Catherine Adel West. The relationships surrounding Sara King are nuanced, complex, and full of small moments that stick with you long after you are done. West has a direct and precise prose that goes straight to the heart of the characters, the story, and the reader." --Morg Rogers, author of Honey Girl 

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