Rarely as the rush of romance felt so, well, rushed as it does in Rebecca Walker's maiden novel Adé: A Love Story. It's a wild ride along with an unnamed (more on that later) biracial college student who's traveling through Africa with her white best friend. Our unnamed narrator falls in love with a Swahili man she meets on an island just off the Kenyan coast, grows apart from her friend and closer to her lover's family, and must struggle with the brutal realities of life under brutal Kenyan leader Daniel arap Moi — all in 112 short pages.
The irony here is that Walker is an insightful writer whose two major nonfiction books — Black, White and Jewish and Baby Love — had the heft and the narrative flow of the best fiction. But with Adé, Walker has penned a novel that feels abridged; more like a truncated treatment than a fully fleshed-out book. The result is a too-brief love story about the kindling of love, which reads as though it was designed for the Kindle.
Part of the problem is that Walker's such a gifted storyteller that I wish she'd take the local streets instead of always opting for the expressway. Her sketch of the intellectual namedropping — Kahlo, de Beauvoir, Borges and, of course, Bob Dylan — in an Ivy League student's life is dead-on, as is her take on the casual cruelty college kids can exhibit. Walker's narrator and her friend espy a cute young man — "a little James Dean cum Jackson Pollock, very drunk and emotionally cut off, and thus, very manly" at a party, and engage him in a ménage-a-trois. But as soon as it's done, he's kicked out of the bed and, it turns out, the book as well. His character was there solely to serve to show the two women getting closer and nothing more. But because of Adé's brevity, the callous memory of that act lingers perhaps longer then Walker intended, and undermines some later dramatic turns.
The two women decide to spend a couple of years traveling around Africa after graduation. In Egypt, Walker's narrator begins to change as she interacts with the folk of color around her, and there are some lovely passages about her experience. But too much falls through the cracks as Walker races ahead toward the "meet cute" moment between the narrator and Adé.
She spots him from behind, "his slender hips" to be exact, and is instantly enthralled. After a few meaningful conversations, her friend has literally been sent packing to travel alone and Adé — who has decided his beloved needs an Arabic first name — and the newly and finally named Farida are now an item.
While the gesture is both sweet and meaningful — as Adé says, the name Farida "means the woman is exceptional, a jewel" — it would have had more import had the reader known her given first name from the get-go. Then Farida's decision to shed it would be truly transformative. But the only way to do that is give her a fully developed back story — and instead, Walker is content to drop hints of Farida's life before Adé: her African-American mother's a writer based in Northern California and her Jewish father's an attorney with a practice in New York. (Sound familiar?)
The book's deftest characterizations are of Adé's family. Much of Walker's best writing is about Adé's mother, Nuru Badi, and his sisters, who consistently test Farida to see if she is worthy of the man whose name means "royal." Farida's acceptance of these tests and these women as an extended family, as well as her gradual adoption of Muslim tradition is well-rendered. And the contrast of that familial love with a brief, tense encounter with Adé's estranged father is beautifully done.
It's when Adé insists on meeting Farida's parents in the U.S. that Walker's pacing shifts into frenetic overdrive. The hellish depictions of Kenya under President Moi — the corruption and violence — as Farida tries to get a passport for Adé are chilling, but they fly by at such an accelerated clip that the horrors don't sink in. We're already on to the next terrible circumstance, whether it be malaria, an unsanitary hospital or a military crackdown. And the book's denouement raises more questions than it answers: Farida's so-called clear-eyed assessment of life in Africa struck me as rather insensitive and — unfairly or not — a reminder of her previous incarnation as the college student who coldly kicked that boy out of her bed.
Will the novel hold your interest? Absolutely. Walker's too good a writer not to. But with some additional fleshing out, Adé: A Love Story could have captured our hearts as well. Instead, I'm reminded of an old Frank Sinatra song: "We're on the road to romance, it's safe to say, but let's take all the stops along the way."
Harlem-born and Brooklyn-bred, Richard Torres is the author of the novel Freddie's Dead. He has written for many publications including XXL, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and The New York Times, and has also penned album liner notes for a number of artists including Marvin Gaye, Richard Pryor and Dave Brubeck.