A good effort for a first novel, and one that shows promise for Manning's future endeavors.
WhitegirlPublisher: Dial Press
Price: $23.95 (US)
Author: Kate Manning
US publication date: 2002-01
Charlotte Halsey: ex-model, the white wife of a famous African-American sportscaster/actor, and recent victim of a horrible crime. Charlotte's history begins on the floor of her kitchen, where she lies in a pool of blood, trying to piece together the events of that evening -- for that matter -- the events of her life. Charlotte's husband, Milo, has already been arrested for her assault, though she is not at all certain he's the criminal. She's not at all certain about anything, it seems.
What follows the opening scene in Charlotte's kitchen is a trip through her memory; beginning in college with the first night she met the soon-to-be-famous Milo Robicheaux (he knocked on the door of her dorm room late at night, looking for someone else). As we meander through Charlotte's life with her, we catch glimpses of her doormat tendencies in relationships with men, the religious guilt bestowed upon her by her parents, the insecurities that control her actions. We meet the people who have meant the most to her Milo; her college roommate, Claire; Milo's family; her model contacts. Snapshots of the life and times of a famous supermodel.
In college, Charlotte was quiet and somewhat insecure. She liked to go out and have fun, but she wasn't the kind of girl who would ever go to the bathroom by herself or anything. Jack, her boyfriend, is the star of the ski team and an all-around Mr. America. He patronizes Charlotte, but she lets him, so no one is really to blame for the failings in their relationship. Eventually, however, Charlotte and Jack drift apart as she abandons him, and college, to move to New York City in an attempt to find herself (safely accompanied by her roommate, Claire, of course).
Once in New York, Charlotte begins her modeling career and decides she does not need college - with her good looks, why would she? She travels the world, appears in dozens of magazines, graces the sides of buses and billboards everywhere, and eventually winds up face-to-face with her old college buddy, Milo Robicheaux. Their relationship progresses along casually, until finally they decide to make it official: New York City's most famous couple, the black ski champion and the white supermodel. Charlotte enjoys the company, and the attention. Besides, she really loves Milo, so when she gets pregnant and he proposes, they convince themselves it was meant to be. When the pregnancy goes awry, the wedding is still on otherwise, it wouldn't have been real, now would it?
In the beginning, Charlotte and Milo do make a happy couple. The problem is, they can never escape the penetrating stares of the bigoted; from both sides, they have people telling them they're wrong. Maybe the real problem is that they started to listen. Once the difficulties in their marriage start to emerge, the novel escalates pretty quickly to the climax: the night Charlotte goes out with her old beaux Jack and then comes home to an attacker in the middle of the night.
By the end of the novel, the reader still does not know what has happened to Charlotte; how she came to be attacked that night remains a mystery. Personally, though, I found myself not much caring what happened to her, or to Milo. Charlotte's insecurities, her "poor me -- pity the supermodel" attitude, and her doormat tendencies all left me cold. The only characters in the book that really piqued my interest were the roommate, Claire, and Milo's sister Bobbie. Unfortunately, they didn't get much ink. The interesting ones never do, I suppose, when in the company of supermodels.
The race perspective isn't all that new, and it lacks a certain depth or innovative spin to make it work. Charlotte says at the beginning of the novel that "all this trying to talk about race; it's like being in a leghold trap, where the caught creature has to gnaw off her own leg to get out of it." I don't know about you, but I never much enjoyed watching anyone try to gnaw off their own leg. The marriage between Charlotte and Milo is transparent, too. While the inside cover jacket of the book professes that Charlotte is "trying to determine how two people once so in love might find themselves so ruined," their story seems to be one of two alcoholic socialites rather than that of two star-crossed lovers.
On a positive note, the book is a quick read, and it keeps the reader's interest by never divulging full details of the situations in it. Manning's style is laid-back and flows easily. The insider view into the life and times of a famous couple is entertaining for what it is, and some of the minor characters help to fatten out the cast roster. A good effort for a first novel, and one that shows promise for Manning's future endeavors. All in all, an entertaining summer read.