Fierce love

Clara’s Heart (NetGalley)
Joseph Olshan
ebook released July 2013

Joseph Olshan’s Clara’s Heart is probably best known as the 1988 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg, which, coincidentally, I’ve not seen. So it was with fresh eyes and ears that I read the novel, recently released as an ebook. The story centers on David and his parents as the family navigates the death of a newborn sister, depression, infidelity, and divorce. It is Clara–a fiercely loyal and loving Jamaican woman–who comes to care for David and steers him through those years of turmoil.

Suspicious of her at first, eight-year-old David quickly bonds with Clara who also seems to have resurrected his mother after baby Edith’s death. A chubby little boy with few friends, his world centers on home … and Clara. The two watch her soap operas together, David learns to love

Jamaican food, and he can even imitate her patois flawlessly. He visits her apartment in Brooklyn and spends time at the beauty parlor where her friends gather. But soon enough, we also see the flip side to such closeness. David fails to respect many boundaries, disobeying Clara repeatedly, snooping in her room–driven by an intense longing to know as much about her has he can, to plumb the depths of her life and its secrets.

And just as David is drawn to Clara after the family’s tragedy, David’s mother Leona is pulled toward Eastern philosophy (and her teacher), giving up her smart skirts, sweaters, and pearls for peasant skirts and blouses (it is the early 70s, after all). David’s father retreats into his work as an international lawyer (and his young assistant). Clara pleads with Leona to put her child above all else. In some parenting advice that is at once out-of-fashion, but perhaps oh-so-wise, Clara implores David’s mother to put her son before her lover, “A child is de only real thing you have, Mrs. Hart … a child is constant. Whereas love wid a lover is a most strange thing. Some days you so sure it’s dere and then tomorrow it suddenly gone like sandpiper.”

Eventually, David must give up Clara and move on, something he doesn’t think he has the courage to do.  Clara promises she will answer all his questions about her life, but only after he has grown to be a man and she sends him a sign. But Olshan’s novel ends only four years after it began, and David does learn Clara’s secrets.

While David’s voice was not consistently child-like (gifted child or no), and Clara’s secret seems (to me) a bit contrived, Clara’s Heart is a fairly satisfying read–and Clara proved an interesting counterpart to Gloria (link). Two powerful Jamaican women to grace your e-reader this summer.

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