Book Review: ‘What’s Mine and Yours’ explores fallout from school integration

Naima Coster, author of "What's Mine and Yours," a lyrical and universal story about homecomings.
Courtesy of Sylvie Rosokoff

Credit: Sylvie Rosokoff

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Naima Coster, author of "What's Mine and Yours," a lyrical and universal story about homecomings. Courtesy of Sylvie Rosokoff

Credit: Sylvie Rosokoff

When “What’s Mine and Yours” opens, it is 1992, and two men are updating one another on their life plans while taking their 15-minute smoke break. Raymond Gilbert has pinned all the hopes for his family’s upward mobility on the new bakery he runs. Robbie Ventura, a Colombian mechanic, talks about buying a house out in the county, away from their current scruffy city surroundings. “If there’s something I’ve learned in this country, it’s that your address decides everything,” Ventura says. Everything that happens after this exchange is a meditation on that sentence. Tragedy befalls both men in the early chapters, and these fathers will quickly vanish from the narrative frame, but the dreams that they have for their families will remain.

At the center of the fallout will be 6-year-old Gee, and his young mother Jade, who live on the predominantly Black east side of town in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Out in the county, Noelle and her siblings Diane and Margarita live with their white mother Lacey May, who actively hides her children’s Colombian heritage, while grappling with the destruction that her husband wrought.

The kids grow up and deal with the complicated choices their mothers made to provide a better future. Noelle is old enough to remember what happened between her parents, even if she didn’t have the sagacity to understand it. Gee spends much of his upbringing struggling with what happens when the word love comes out like a question instead of a statement.

It will be almost a decade before the main characters understand the ways in which their storylines intersect, and Gee and Noelle will find themselves bound together by the trauma of school integration. The landmark decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case was handed down in 1954, but the topic of education equality feels incredibly timely, given America’s recent investigations of the costs of structural racism and the result of trauma that festers.

A major portion of the novel takes place in 2002, when Gee and Noelle are high school juniors. At the center of this drama is the school’s production of the Shakespeare play, “Measure for Measure,” meant to bring city and county students together. Noelle and Gee are convinced to participate. The title of the play, which also appears as a line of dialogue, is commonly thought to be a biblical reference to the Sermon on the Mount referenced in Matthew 7:2: “(F)or in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” It is a poignant statement in a book where the characters wrestle with what is fair versus what is right.

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Courtesy of Grand Central Publishing

Credit: Handout

Courtesy of Grand Central Publishing

Credit: Handout

Combined ShapeCaption
Courtesy of Grand Central Publishing

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Drama ensues, and while the pair survive the racially motivated melee, they do not emerge unscathed. Still, the children grow up and move on, until a medical emergency functions like a beacon, summoning back those who escaped the gravity of their familial situations back home.

Naima Coster is no stranger to these sorts of homecomings. Her debut novel “Halsey Street,” about a failed artist who returns home to care for her father in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, was a finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for fiction, and the quietly resonant novel was enough to land her on the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” list.

This second book is also about culture and capital, and even with its shortcomings, “What’s Mine and Yours” is a lyrical, universal story about home, reminiscent of the works of Jacqueline Woodson and Tayari Jones.

Still, the novel has its shortcomings. For a work with land and geography at its core, readers don’t get to know anywhere particularly well. The constantly rotating point of view means readers are everywhere and nowhere all at once — Paris, Los Angeles, the suburbs of Atlanta and the Piedmont of North Carolina, all while skipping through the years 1992, 1996, 2002 and 2018-2020. There is also no real urgency to pull readers through the narrative — no ticking clock or driving tension. Bad things happen, but the foreshadowing ahead of each event is so strong that it’s expected. The bombshells seem like open secrets and the characters quickly move on after the reveal or exit the scene shortly thereafter.

Coster’s brand of literary realism does deliver some elegant lines and keen universal observations for Noelle: “(B)eing a wife, it seemed, was mostly waiting. Waiting for a phone call, waiting to be thanked, waiting for a delivery, the plumber, her husband to come home, to ask whether she was all right, to slip a hand in her underwear.” The author has similar lines about mothering, trust and opportunity.

However, for a story that is billed as having several main characters, there essentially is only one: Noelle. It is her emotions and reactions to events that pull readers through most of the later years of the narrative. Everyone else is simply a foil, or at best, an accelerant. In the closing chapters a resolution arrives, but the reckoning never comes, and redemption is made impossible.

By the end of the book, the narrator’s description of “Measure for Measure” also sums up Coster’s latest work: “Claudio and Juliet were the only ones worth rooting for, although they spent nearly every act apart. They were victims, they loved one another, and nearly everyone else was detestable, too stuck in their own ideologies to ever do what was right.”


FICTION

“What’s Mine And Yours”

By Naima Coster

Grand Central Publishing

352 pages, $28