What You Owe Me

by Bebe Moore Campbell

This story of a woman's quest for retribution for her dead mother's dashed dreams is all about choices. Presented as a multigenerational story of betrayal and revenge, WHAT YOU OWE ME is really a lengthy exploration of the lasting influence parents have on their children, the necessity of dealing with one's past, and the concept of personal responsibility.

Matriece Carter is a 30-something cosmetics executive haunted by her mother Hosanna's ghost. On a mission to recoup the money her mother lost when cosmetics mogul Gilda Rosenstein pulled out of their fledgling firm in the 1940s, Matriece is at a crossroads in her own life. Torn between living a life that would please her mother and choosing her own happiness, Matriece begins to examine her past relationship with her mother and how it continues to shape her decisions. To her credit, author Campbell uses not only Matriece's example but a full cast, ranging from an African-American, South Central teen to a middle-aged, white Beverly Hills executive, to make her definitive comments on the parent-child dynamic. Campbell's characters act out their childhood hang-ups in a variety of compulsive and sometimes self-destructive ways, from gambling and drugs to depression and anger.  

The meditative tone of the novel allows its central message to come through clearly: how you respond to your parents' example, whether in agreement or defiance, is your own choice. This theme is perhaps best represented in the book's closing chapters, when the former partners, Gilda and Hosanna, admit their true reasons for never facing the other after the breakup. When each woman gives up the mantle of victim and takes onus for the decisions she made, it is a watershed moment in terms of the book's theme.

Another theme is that of the universality of suffering. The early chapters recount the relationship between Hosanna and Gilda as young hotel maids in late 1940s Los Angeles. Both women were driven to Los Angeles by oppression --- Hosanna after cruel whites usurped her family farm and Gilda after surviving Nazi death camps. Heavy-handed and obvious comparisons of their plights are made both by the narrator and through the character's dialogue. It is hard to understand how Gilda, who makes so many of the comparisons between Blacks and Jews, ends their friendship and business on the understanding that having a Black friend will improve her life. One can only assume that this is the author's intention, to impart the bewilderment that goes along with such an unexpected and unfathomable turn of events. More interesting are the contemplations on race relations in the contemporary portion of the story. Matriece's relationship with Blair, a white woman raised in South Central, is a tense affair that Campbell uses to flesh out many of the questions that affect people daily in a divisive yet politically correct society. Some readers will identify strongly with these questions.

The looming troubles of WHAT YOU OWE ME's various characters, whether legal or personal, are played out in a fairly tense manner. Although all of the characters receive a somewhat happy ending, no one in WHAT YOU OWE ME gets a free ride; the resolutions are satisfactory without being sappy. In the end, most of the characters have to stop running, look their demons in the eye and take responsibility for their own lives.

Reviewed by Sofrina Hinton on September 3, 2002

What You Owe Me
by Bebe Moore Campbell

  • Publication Date: September 3, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • ISBN-10: 0425186318
  • ISBN-13: 9780425186312