Growing up in the 1970s and dealing with an atypical family is the
focus of Veronica Chambers's debut novel, WHEN DID YOU STOP LOVING
ME. In a surprisingly short novel, just under 250 pages, Chambers
is able to evoke the sentiments felt by many during this era marked
by the end of the Vietnam War and the fight for Civil Rights. At
the same time, Chambers details the story of a young black girl who
finds it tough growing up without a mother during the last half of
her youth. It is told from the viewpoint of young Angela Davis
Brown, born to a beautiful mother who longs for fame and financial
security, and a father who teaches Angela the value of an education
and the finer side of life.
Angela is loved by both of her parents. Her father is a magician, a
very nontraditional trade for someone who is helping to support a
family. With his occasional gigs at parties and clubs, her mother
is the breadwinner, which isn't saying much. Her parents argue over
their finances constantly, especially since her father Teddo
refuses to get a "real" job. The focus of WHEN DID YOU STOP LOVING
ME, however, starts at the point in time when Angela's mother,
Melanie, decides not to return home one day, leaving no note or
explanation. Told through flashbacks, the story deals with Angela's
coming to terms with Melanie's disappearance, and how she and her
father pick up the pieces and move on.
Teddo, who never played a real paternal role in Angela's life, is
now forced to be both mother and father to her. Scenes of him
trying to do her hair are very touching, as he sets out to prove to
his daughter that they don't need Melanie to survive. Christmas is
a stressful affair, with Angela desperate to have things "normal,"
but her father does not cooperate. Angela now starts going to the
clubs with her father, since he can't leave her alone at home while
he is out working, and she gets a glimpse of a different version of
Teddo --- someone who was never revealed to her until now. He's a
confident man who knows his audience, and the audience adores him.
He is in his element. It is where he belongs.
The story is told in Angela's voice, and the reader gets inside her
head as she tries to make sense of her mother's disappearance while
trying to move on. A traumatic scene involves Angela and her father
as they discuss what may have happened to Melanie. Teddo is very
calm as he imagines Melanie living the high-life in Hollywood, and
says that they don't need her and that they can live without her.
Teddo's lifelong dream is to be an ambassador for an African nation
and to live among the African people, and he starts to talk about
this dream when he suddenly breaks down and cries. It's been a few
months since Melanie had left them, and Angela notes that this is
the first time he has displayed any real emotion.
As Angela grows older, she tries to come to terms with her mother's
disappearance, feeling at times that she was to blame. It is a
typical child's reaction to a parent who is no longer in his/her
life, and Angela does her best to understand why Melanie would want
to leave her only daughter.
This reviewer loved the writing style that makes this story flow.
Beautifully written, the words are concise and to the point. A book
like this may or may not be appreciated by someone younger than
those who remember the 1970s. But one would think that after
reading WHEN DID YOU STOP LOVING ME, people will find themselves
either reminiscing about this era or wanting to understand the many
references Chambers makes to this time period. Comparisons are
often made to African American icons of this day: Muhammad Ali,
Isaac Hayes, Cicely Tyson... the list goes on and on. Readers will
find themselves smiling as they are brought back to this era of
huge Afros, boom boxes, Jimmy Carter, and disco.
But the main draw to this novel is the story of young Angela Davis
Brown --- how she grows up without her mother and her relationship
with her father. It is a touching novel that will live in the
hearts of those who read it. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton (Ratmammy@lofton.org) on January 24, 2011
When Did You Stop Loving Me