The Women of Brewster Place (1982), which won the National Book Award, established Naylor as a gifted writer, worthy of comparison with Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. The next two novels she published, however, met with mixed reviews. While her exploration of the black middle class in Linden Hills (1985) was praised for its originality, some critics thought that the novel was flawed by Naylor’s obvious preoccupation with symbolism and her scrupulous adherence to the pattern of the Inferno section of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). Similarly, reviewers admired Mama Day (1988) for its synthesis of social satire and the oral tradition, but many believed that Naylor had overloaded her story with plot and symbolism, again attempting more than she was able to manage.
Although an ornate and symbolic plot structure is also basic to Bailey’s Café, most critics have agreed that in this novel Naylor has successfully integrated form and content. Both the ingenious concert framework and the richly symbolic setting have been judged to be successful; far from getting in the way of her characters, the devices enable them to reveal themselves in all of their complexity. Most reviewers thus consider Bailey’s Café to be both a showcase for the author’s powers of invention and a triumph of Magical Realism. Moreover, in the conclusion of the novel, many critics have observed a change in tone from Naylor’s earlier works, which offered little hope to African Americans (who were seen as victims of the white establishment) and even less to black women (who were shown bound by sexism as well as by racism). In Bailey’s Café, in contrast, Naylor uses the sufferings of her characters as a basis for an affirmation of life and the possibility of spiritual transcendence.