Joyce doesn't just have one tragic memory in her life --- she has several. She has lost a husband, a son, and a daughter. She gave up a secure job to open a place where she could work with teen moms and kids from unfortunate home lives. Pearl Cleage, in I WISH I HAD A RED DRESS, piles both the sorrow and the cliches onto a story about an independent woman. If it weren't quite so heavy-handed, there would be greater merit in the telling of Joyce's story. Instead, it reads like a morality manual for today's woman, rising from the muck and mire to bask in the glory of her own independence. And then it wraps it all up in a love story. It's a haphazard smorgasbord of ideas that ultimately wears the narrative thin.
Joyce has given up her old life for a new one running the Albert B. Mitchell Sewing Circus and Community Truth Center, otherwise known as the Circus, a place where runaways, teens with kids, and other folks fallen on hard times can find comfort, support, and a new start. That's a fine thing in and of itself. Then add on the crunchy granola friends, the best friend who is a groovy minister with the husband who has a thing for Joyce, and the stereotypical eager-to-learn teens who inhabit and work at the Circus. How about the old ladies, straight out of "The Waltons," who own the house that Joyce's love interest ends up renting? Finally, there are the innumerable movie references, mostly about black actors who Joyce thinks embody certain characteristics that all black people should --- I guess no one ever told Joyce not to look to the movies for her heroes.
Like a lesser Spike Lee film, Cleage employs everything she can to speak to her audience, to make her points, to show how Joyce is both tuned into the world she lives in and how she tries to tune out but can't. She is flooded by the menagerie of today's pop scene and tries to use its product to enact some new and important ideas on her teens, who are starting a new life. Somehow, it doesn't all gel together nicely --- the references pop out of the story like pimples on a teen's face the night before the prom. They are not necessary and don't do much to enhance the story, although Cleage seems to think they do. I think they pull the narrative down.
Perhaps if Cleage had simply trusted in the power of her character and the fine brave face she turns to the world, there would have been no need for this pop junket, and the morality of the thing would have been easier to take. I found I WISH I HAD A RED DRESS ham-handed in its striving for integrity. It will be interesting to see how Cleage's newly enlarged reading audience (thanks to her last book being an Oprah pick) responds to this latest work. Joyce could have been a great heroine and she deserves better writing and a simpler atmosphere in which to have her story told.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 22, 2011
I Wish I Had a Red Dress