Reviewed by Rosa Kumar
An unforgettable portrait of an unlovable antihero as she manipulates her way through 1940s Black Boston society
The Living is Easy is an intimate, witty account of a shockingly unlikeable protagonist, Cleo, and her very lovable but victimized family. Cleo is a stunning, egotistical young woman who grew up in the countryside, but is sent to Boston when she is old enough because her mother worries her voraciousness is too much for the countryside.
“Cleo’s time, between her easy chores, was spent in training her tongue to a northern twist, in learning to laugh with a minimum show of teeth, and in memorizing a new word in the dictionary every day.
“The things that Cleo never had to be taught were how to hold her head high, how to scorn sin with men, and how to keep her left hand from knowing what her right hand was doing” (23).
Cleo settles down with the wealthy “Black Banana King” Mr. Judson and they have a single daughter, Judy. Judy is a sore disappointment to Cleo, too kind and too dark, and she lacks Cleo’s ambition and good looks. Cleo, never satisfied, still yearns for her sisters and the admiration they all felt for her; she misses her bright childhood and commanding a household, and so she plots and plans until she can get all her sisters and their children, without their husbands, living under her roof.
“Her eyes flew open. The birds were waking in the Carolina woods. Cleo always got up with them. There were never enough hours in a summer day to extract the full joy of being alive” (10).
Cleo’s plotting takes her across the streets of Boston, hunting for a manor to house her sisters in the right neighborhoods, those housing upper class Black folks, and none of the new Irish immigrants or Black countryside kinsmen she aggressively pretends she never belonged to. This is not the unconscious bias that permeates some Black-on-Black racism in today’s dialogue; it is a purposeful and open hatred that shocks readers. How can Cleo, after just a few years in Boston, hate her own community?
To get what she wants, Cleo manipulates her kindhearted husband into giving her money. Mr. Judson is inclined to save, wanting to ensure his wife and daughter are taken care of if something were to happen to him, but Cleo does not acknowledge this. She wants good meat, high quality dresses, and a house in the most gentrified neighborhood she can live in.
Cleo is selfish and classist and racist, one of the most unlikeable characters I have ever read, but then Dorothy gives us a touch of her softness, a moment where Cleo feels genuine sympathy or affection for her husband or child, and we melt for her. Cleo is not meant to be a loveable protagonist; she is meant to be an authentic one.
“Judy [Cleo’s daughter] stared down at her shoes, feeling very uncomfortable because Cleo’s voice was carrying to the woman on the stairs. Miss Binney always said that a lady must keep her voice low, and never boast, and never, never say anything that might hurt somebody’s feelings.
“‘She heard you,’ said Judy in a stricken voice.
“Cleo gave her a look of amiable impatience. ‘Well, I expected her to hear. Who did you think I was talking to?’” (39)
Dorothy West’s writing talent is wildly impressive. It’s a tragedy we only have a handful of novels from her to give us a deep insider perspective on the domestic lives of 1940s Black women, perhaps one of the most underrepresented people of literary America at the time.
Dorothy was a writer during the Harlem Renaissance, a period which was characterized by a revival of African American literature, thought, music, fashion, theater, and politics. The cultural outpour during the Harlem Renaissance was astounding, and she was one of the few female novelists who became published.
This novel, while originally published in 1948, is a relevant piece for some of our current dialogue. Cleo is a product of a racist society, and her story is a challenge for us to understand our own shortcomings, privileges, and interactions with the world. Dorothy West paints a vivid portrait of an unforgettable antihero. Although we don’t have to like her, we still should try to understand her.
Publisher: Feminist Press
Genre: Literary Fiction / African American / Women
Print Length: 380 pages
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