I Wish I Had a Red Dress is Pearl Cleage's second novel. Set in Idlewild, Michigan, the locale of her successful debut novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, it is the story of Joyce Mitchell. She is the older sister of Crazy's Ava Johnson Jefferson. The fates have not been kind to Joyce.
“My father passed when I was sixteen. My mother committed suicide on my wedding night a year later. My son got hit by a car walking home from school when he was six and my daughter didn't make it to her first birthday . . .” Her beloved husband, Mitch, died in a tragic accident five years before the novel begins. “We'd been together since I was fifteen and we were so close I made the mistake of thinking we were the same person.”
Joyce is stoic and strong. She also is a lemonade maker. For the past five years, Joyce has run the Sewing Circus, a social services organization and haven for young women in the area. A great deal of the action in Cleage's first novel involved her struggle for the hearts and minds of the next generation of Idlewild's women. Joyce's struggle to create "free women" continues. Her personal needs have gone unfulfilled since Mitch's death.
Although Joyce continues to cloak herself in black for "convenience," she longs for something different. “Black pants and a black turtleneck without applesauce showing anywhere are about the best I can hope for at the moment, but somehow I can't get that red dress out of my mind.”
I know what some of you are thinking. What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day was “an Oprah book.” From what I've revealed so far, this book might well qualify. Rest assured, there is joy, hope, laughter in this book. I promise.
Joyce's life takes a different turn when Nate Anderson, a former Detroit cop, turned school administrator comes to town. They are immediately attracted to each other and their relationship is realistically cautious. The high school's new vice principal is a strong, sensitive counterpart to Joyce's warrior woman. Both have suffered losses in love and begin a relationship based on humor and truth.
Like Crazy, the focus of this novel is often raw. We see a generation of young women who have not experienced caring relationships. Tee, one of my favorite secondary characters, decides to abandon her search for real-life role models in favor of a reel-life example. After years of abuse by lovers and male family members, she looks to actor Denzel Washington and the film roles he has portrayed. She often asks herself "What would Denzel do?"
The book is populated with strong secondary characters whose stories demand to be told. The author has struck a balance and allows the stories to play off each other. Generations and lifestyles come together.
Readers should approach I Wish I Had a Red Dress more as an extension of Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot, the author's book of feminist essays rather than as a direct sequel to What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. The Jeffersons and Joyce's adopted daughter are off on vacation and wisely receive only fleeing mentions in this book. However, Sister, the town's New Age minister and her poet husband are fleshed out more here. And, while the setting is the same, those familiar with Cleage's work will see a closer relationship to "Mad at Miles" on the issue of domestic violence. Likewise, Nate is worthy of inclusion with those men saluted in her "Good Brother Blues."
The R rating is for more for the novel's language than its sexual content.