I was completely taken in from the first page of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. And yet I’ve struggled with this review because I just can’t seem to put the book into words. So maybe it will be easier to put it into one word: voluptuous. I have never read a novel that appealed so viscerally to my senses.
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. p. 13
That’s pretty heady stuff for a walk in the woods!
A member of the Harlem Renaissance movement, Hurston attempted to capture a microcosm of the post-Civil War experience of African-American women with Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book begins with Janie Crawford, a beautiful teenager, awakening to the sensuousness of the South in springtime. Her grandmother panics at her first kiss, fearing she will go down the path of the mother who had and then abandoned Janie, and so she marries her off to a secure but boring local farmer. Janie’s personality can’t be contained, however, and she walks off the farm one day with Jody, a man she believes will lead her to adventure. He brings Janie to one of the newly-built African-American towns in Central Florida, and quickly becomes the town’s mayor. But Janie finds out that having money and prestige is very different from having happiness.
Still, Janie’s disappointing marriage to Jody eventually leaves her a young, rich widow. And her independence gives her something she’s never had: choices. When she meets Teacake, a guitar-playing gambler, she experiences the “springtime” she remembers from her youth. Because she owns a home she can choose to leave it. Because she has lived conventionally she can choose to flout convention. Janie’s self-actualization becomes an allegory for the Harlem Renaissance itself, ready to break free from the constraints of white society and create something truly unique and beautiful on its own.
I’m sorry it took me so long to get this review up – it would have been a perfect choice for Banned Book Week, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for a great Harlem Renaissance title. It is partially written to capture the Southern African-American vernacular of the time, and that slowed down my reading a bit at times, but it didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment: it just made me focus. One thing I found personally captivating was the book’s location. I lived in Gainesville, Florida, for six years, so I had an easy time imagining the wild lushness of rural central Florida and its small, isolated little towns. I would encourage all lovers of literary fiction to read this book. Southern literature enthusiasts and classic romance readers would enjoy it as well. It spans so many boundaries: humorous but heartbreaking, classic but out of the ordinary, ancient but totally fresh.
What a fantastic Classics Club title! I can’t figure out how Their Eyes Were Watching God was a completely new title to me – I saw it on the ALA’s list of Banned and Challenged Classics and couldn’t remember ever having heard about it. But a quick look at the synopsis told me I’d found a title that fit the African-American Experience Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge – and the story looked compelling to boot. So I plonked down the whopping $9.78 cost of the Kindle edition and got to work (for anyone keeping count, that’s $12.29 for my Classics Club reading so far, for an average of about $4.10 per title). I’m quite sure this going to be one of my favorite books of the year, so it was more than worth the cost of the e-book. And both of those challenges are happily on track! Next up – two classics that fit into the RIP Challenge coming soon!