From the very first verdant lines of this novel, delivered in narrator Ruby Dee’s chocolatey smooth tones, I knew that I was going to love Zora Neale Hurston’s way with words, and indeed, the prose stayed consistently strong throughout the novel, but what made this book a five star read for me was the unforgettable Janie.
Many novelists craft their tales around a strong female protagonist, but Janie has to be one of the most finely wrought characters I have ever followed through a book. As the reader travels with Janie through three marriages, it is a journey of becoming-and not just of watching Janie become-as you begin to assess your own life and happiness, the way you feel about and live your life. Janie endures two marriages, each of which she survives by wearing a certain personality and acting in a certain manner, until she finally finds true love and happiness with the one man with whom she can truly be herself and with whom she shares mutual respect. Janie becomes so genuinely happy that everyone who reads of her cannot help but want to have a life like hers, despite its hardships.
Set primarily in Florida in the early years of the 20th century and ending in the 1930s, the novel paints a good picture of what life was like for black people during the Depression and shares some history of the area, but it aims primarily to be a portrait of a woman rather than an accounting of the era in which she lived.
This book would be a fantastic book club read for a group of women who are not afraid to be very open and honest about the nature of their marriages, as that is the true crux of the novel-that people are never happy in marriage until they are able to love and be loved for exactly who they are. I would think that it would be a difficult discussion for a group unwilling to openly discuss these issues, as the book draws the reader in and becomes very intimate.
Janie is a character that I want to share with all of my reading friends, as I cannot imagine anyone not being drawn in by her life. If you are an audio listener, the Harper Audio version of the book, read by Ruby Dee, is absolutely wonderful and not only takes away the challenge of reading the dialect-it turns it into great theater.