In the first of the novel’s thirty-four brief chapters, the seven-year-old Maud Martha Brown yearns to be “cherished” in the way that she perceives her sister Helen, two years older, to be. The same motif of sibling envy pops up late in the novel when Maud Martha’s mother, Belva, reveals that Helen wants to marry the family doctor, a man much older. This revelation (the girls’ father is thinking of changing doctors) leads to Maud Martha’s musing that “It’s funny how some people are just charming, just pretty, and others, born of the same parents, are just not.” The best answer that Belva can muster is “you make the best cocoa in the family.”
These passages reveal something of the insecurity that Maud Martha feels, but her sensitivity to race and class issues troubles her much more. Her “first beau,” Russell, is “decorated inside and out,” but he is dismissed in favor of the “second beau,” who longs to be an English country gentleman and envies the chaps who have mastered Vernon Parrington’s classic work of intellectual history, Main Currents in American Thought. Maud Martha comes to an understanding, however, with Paul Phillips, who admits “I’m not handsome,” and their generally contented marriage produces Paulette, who arrives in the world in comic confusion.
Some of Brooks’s best chapters are stinging portraits of pretentiousness. When she goes to hear a popular black author speak, to his annoyance she tags along with him afterward toward the Jungly Hovel. His tone changes immediately when they meet up with a white couple, and Brooks’s contemptuous portrait of this “rash representative from the ranks of the intellectual nouveau riche.” Equally cutting is the sketch of Mrs. Burns-Cooper, an elegant white lady who interviews Maud Martha as a potential house maid. Mrs. Burns-Cooper struggles to achieve the common touch as Maud Martha is peeling potatoes, but her tedious chatter about her imported lace, her sister-in-law’s Stradivarius, and the charm of the Nile convinces Maud Martha never to return.
Maud Martha is a novel of acute observation of human behavior, and it is written in the bright language of a major poet.