Book review: Captivating ‘Monster in the Middle’ puts the real in romance

Emory professor Tiphanie Yanique is the author of "Monster in the Middle." (Courtesy of Riverhead Books)
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Emory professor Tiphanie Yanique is the author of "Monster in the Middle." (Courtesy of Riverhead Books)

Tiphanie Yanique’s unorthodox love story explores how the past shapes the present

We may think we act independently when we choose our romantic partners, but Tiphanie Yanique asserts in her stunning new novel, “Monster in the Middle,” that whom we love is determined by those who came before us and whom they loved.

“(W)hen you meet your love, you are meeting all the people who ever loved them, or who were supposed to love them but didn’t love them enough or, hell, didn’t love them at all,” she writes.

A love story is a fairly radical concept for literary fiction, but “Monster in the Middle” doesn’t trade in any of the tropes typically associated with a romance novel. Yanique’s world is populated with complex souls who contend with big issues like race, religion and mental illness on a personal, granular level. Her characters have dreams and goals, but they often fall short of them. And their dramas play out against a backdrop of national and global tragedies: Vietnam War, Challenger explosion, San Francisco earthquake, Virginia Tech mass shooting, COVID-19, Black Lives Matter.

Central to the novel is the union of Stela and Fly, but that comes later. The book opens with a section devoted to the story of Fly, which begins in California with his father, Gary Lovett. A young man who hears voices he believes to be divine, Gary is a religious omnivore who embraces one religion after another.

Gary’s first love is a young, white Christian woman with whom he drives across the country. Their journey together stalls in Tennessee, where he eventually marries Fly’s mother, a woman whose dreams about space travel die when the Challenger explodes. Their love of music and their son Fly are the only bonds they share.

Stela’s section starts when her parents are teenagers living in an orphanage in the Virgin Islands. In quick order, they run away together and marry. But soon after Stela’s birth, her father “climbed a mountain, of course, jumped in the water, and swam away. Or drowned. Either way,” observes Stela’s foul-mouthed mother, who had already lost her parents to the sea. The young widow is attending Spelman College when she meets the Morehouse man she would marry. Stela couldn’t have asked for a more devoted father, despite the fact he is sick for as long as she can remember.

When Fly’s section ends, he’s still in college, developing a fascination for Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” But Stela’s section takes us through college and a loveless first marriage, where her spark for life has grown dim. It comes as a relief, in the book’s third and final section, when Stela finally meets Fly, but to say their relationship gets off to a rough start is an understatement. After all, “they have an ancestry’s worth of broken hearts between them.”

Throughout the characters’ different stories, there are numerous parallels that connect them to one another. Gary Lovett’s ex-girlfriend and wife both go by the same nickname. One is the privileged, white Christian whose image remains perpetually young, blond and unburdened among the Lovett family photos on the mantel. The other is the disillusioned but resolute Black woman who grows old and tired having to contend with a troubled husband.

“Gone people have power,” says Fly’s mother, who stitches all her frustrations and her hopes for her son into the quilts she makes. While making one for Fly, she muses, “I quilted in the letters of the shuttle, but I did leave out the last one. I wanted you to have a challenge, but not one that would rise up from the past and blow you up. I never put myself in the quilt. Though of course my hand was in the whole thing.”

It doesn’t come as a shock when Fly has his own youthful fling with a flighty, white Christian coed.

Among other parallels, Fly’s father and Stela’s mother are both orphans. Stela and her mother both bond with their first boyfriends over their shared love of the sea. When Stela’s mother steals a bag of baby teeth from a girl in her orphanage, the theft echoes in Stela’s own rash acts.

Skin color and racial identity are recurring themes. Born and raised in the Virgin Islands, Stela identifies as Black. Her first boyfriend Johann is “a white kid born in South Africa and raised in the Caribbean,” whom she admires for his connection to the motherland. But when she goes to Ghana to study abroad, she feels like an outsider among the other Black Americans because of her Caribbean roots. Years later, when she runs into Johann and he shows her pictures of his children, she’s surprised they aren’t Black. Meanwhile, Fly attends a mostly white private school in Atlanta and plays on the basketball team not because he likes the sport, but because it’s expected of him. When he first meets Stela, he thinks she’s “the lightest-skinned Black girl Fly had ever seen.”

Yanique’s narrative is primarily told from a third person point of view, but there are occasional chapters that slip in first person, creating the sensation of living inside the character’s skin, knowing their most intimate thoughts. It’s just one of the ways in which Yanique cuts to the quick of human emotion in this captivating, multidimensional love story.

A traditional romance novel requires a happy ending, but “Monster in the Middle” goes for something stickier and more complicated. In Yanique’s world, life is like the ocean — there are a lot of ups and downs. Love does not guarantee a happy ending, but sometimes it can save you from drowning.


FICTION

“Monster in the Middle”

by Tiphanie Yanique

Riverhead Books

288 pages, $27