Before I ever picked up Just Wanna Testify I read several tweets and posts on Goodreads about how it was unlike anything Pearl Cleage had written before, and that that wasn't necessarily a good thing. So you can understand why I was hesitant to pick it up. I'm so glad I ignored the tweets and ratings and read it myself. I LOVED IT!
I'm going to tell you upfront that Cleage has brought vampires to the West End. For those not familiar with her work, the West End is an area of town that Cleage has created. Made up of hard working men and women, it's protected by the otherworldly Blue Hamilton. Blue and his security crew keep criminals and a bad element out of the West End, offering women and children a safe space. Married to Regina and father to Sweetie, he's as content as any man can be. And then the vamps show up.
So before you go into this "I don't do vamp lit and I'm not going to read this" tirade, much like the one I went on, let me tell you what this book is not. It's not vamp lit. There's no Sookie Stackhouse and friends coming to take on the vamps. There's no Bill or Eric trying to prove that not all vamps are bad.
Instead, there are the Mayflower sisters (perhaps Cleage's hat tip to Anne Rice's Mayfair witch family of the same name and same state), natives of Louisiana, international top models and tomato drinking vampires. The Mayflowers arrive in town under the pretense of a photo shoot, but they're really there for something much more important to the survival of their breed. And that's as far as I'm going with the synopsis.
Sure, the vamps could have been a turn off, but very rarely does Cleage get it wrong, so readers should have known she was going to bring it sooner or later. And bring it she does. Now let's talk about the message in the book.
Readers that put the book down too early missed the message and should kick themselves for giving up so soon. Actually there are three messages. The first is that black women have historically stood by black men no matter how badly they've treated them and should continue to do so, though not to the detriment of themselves. The second message is that black men have got to be accountable for themselves and other black men. It's not enough to say you've made it and not reach back to help someone else, especially the generations that come after you. And the third message is that love changes everything.
Could Cleage have just written an essay with these three messages and called it a day? Sure, but she didn't. These are things I took away from the book. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm as wrong as two left shoes. To be sure, you should pick up a copy and read for yourself.
What did you like about the book?
Duh, the messages.
What didn't you like about the book?
The models didn't really have to be vampires. They really could have been any otherworldly creature or a regular human devoid of emotion, so the decision to make them vampires is somewhat confusing.
What could the author do to improve this book?
I'd say stay in her own lane and leave the supernatural to others, like Tananarive Due or the late Octavia Butler, since her readers seem to have a problem with it. On the other hand, Blue and Abbie have always been supernatural beings, so perhaps she should have refreshed reader's memories upfront and eased them into the concept of vampires in West End.
Published May 2011
Theme: I Want to Testify by The Parliaments