Half a Heart is, above all, a novel dealing with relationships—all kinds of relationships, but especially those between mothers and daughters. Those relationships lead to conflicts and confrontations, and there are a great number of conflicts in this book. It is a book that begins in the late 1990’s and goes back to the turbulent 1960’s. The conflicts of that troubled time are then visited upon the calm end of the twentieth century. However, while there are more than enough conflicts to fill this and another novel, the resolution of those conflicts is very weak.
The main character of the novel is Miriam Vener. In the late 1990’s, she is a well-to-do wife of a very successful ophthalmologist; she has three lovely children and everything one could wish for materially. However, she is depressed. Why? One reason is that her children are all occupied with their own pursuits and do not need the care and comfort of a mother. In addition, her own mother is very old, ill, and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Her mother does, however, ask Miriam why she “never showed me her.” The “her” is Miriam’s child of mixed race (African American and Caucasian) who was conceived during the 1960’s in Miriam’s affair with Eljay Reece, an African American music teacher at Parnassus College in Mississippi. She now longs to make contact with her lost daughter and complete her life. Her daughter, Veronica “Ronnee” Reece, is living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn; she too longs for a mother, and, even more, she needs the money Miriam can provide to make her life comfortable at Stanford, where she has accepted a scholarship. So Ronnee’s motives, as well as Miriam’s, are complicated and somewhat suspect.
Mother and daughter do meet in Brooklyn in a tension-filled scene full of hesitation and doubt on both sides, and then they go to Miriam’s summer home in New Hampshire. Miriam is uncertain about how to deal with this newly discovered child, and Ronnee is unsure in the country atmosphere of New Hampshire. The key moment comes when Miriam has to introduce Ronnee to a friend; she cannot, at this point, identify her as her daughter. Ronnee reacts strongly to this denial, and the fragile relationship is about to break before it has truly begun.
The relationship between Miriam and Ronnee is deepened, if not entirely healed, when Miriam tells her daughter about her life as a civil rights volunteer during the 1960’s in Mississippi. This flashback is one of the best parts of the novel. Miriam reveals that she was an unsuccessful history teacher of the black and oppressed; they resented her insistence on standards that she brought with her from Columbia University. So she was somewhat dispirited, as her expectations were not met. In this context of doubt and disappointment, she met a very successful music teacher, Eljay Reece. She admired his ability to move and motivate the students, and they soon were in a passionate relationship that produced an illegitimate daughter. The central conflict now became who would bring up the child. Miriam did nurture Ronnee for eight months in Chicago. It was, however, a troubled time for her, and she returned to Mississippi, where Eljay insisted on bringing up the child. Surprisingly, Miriam did consent to Eljay’s sole custody; Eljay argued that Miriam could not bring up a black child in her white society. Miriam did not put up much of an argument or much resistance, and she did not see or speak to her child for seventeen years.
Miriam is guilty, then, of two betrayals; the original one is having allowed Eljay to bring up Ronnee by himself. This is compounded by her refusal, because of social embarrassment, to acknowledge Ronnee as her daughter in New Hampshire. She must do some penance if she is to become whole. So she decides to publicly acknowledge Ronnee, and she announces a coming-out party for her daughter to meet friends and relatives at her elegant Houston home. This leads to a minor conflict with her husband, Barry. He is described a number of times as a good and decent man. However, he is reluctant to put into jeopardy his reputation and standing in the community as a doctor with the revelation that he has a black stepdaughter. Miriam plows through his reluctance and resistance, showing a strength that she did not have in the conflict with Eljay over custody. She now needs to redeem herself, and this is her last opportunity.
The coming-out party has only one uncomfortable incident when a relative cries out her disdain for this new and black member of...
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