I love complex characters. I enjoy foreshadowing and dark humor in humorless situations. I look for plots that begin in a large, knotted and tangled mass which seems impenetrable from any approach.
And I found all the above in Bliss: A Novel by Gabrielle Pina.
Teenager Claudine Tilbo feels disconnected from her parents and twin brother. She’s taunted and ridiculed by everyone—including her family—because of her weight. And though she uses the weight to hide and insulate herself, Claudine has a gift she doesn’t hide… she is a talented violinist.
Claudine’s gift should be cause for accolades and celebration, but it too brings bullying and ridicule. From Bone, her twin brother who is as small in stature as Claudine is large; from Willamina, her passive/aggressive, alcoholic mother who can’t seem to look Claudine in the eye; and Claudine’s father—the Deacon—a cold-hearted manipulative man using the church for his own personal gain… financial and physical.
The only person who sees the greatness is her mother’s sister, Hattie Mae Jones.
It’s Hattie Mae to buys the violin for Claudine, pays the tuition for private school and lessons, and owns the upscale duplex which she shares with Claudine’s family.
For reasons not known at first, Hattie Mae is a force to be reckoned with. No one in the town… or Tilbo family… crosses the statuesque beauty. Her connections and resources are limitless. The former prison inmate has a reputation for doing whatever it takes to achieve her goal.
It’s that reputation and Hattie Mae’s dogged determination which drive Bliss.
The author does a wonderful job of juxtaposing the lives of the women of Bliss while unraveling the lies, deceit, and treachery at its heart. The similarities in each woman’s decisions almost feel genetic. Defying common sense advice, each makes decisions which lead into the traps of life they were warned about.
We see what shaped the women’s personalities and how they came to be in their situations. Even when they make the wrong decisions, the reader understands why. Everything is a means to an end even if it’s only temporary.
The relationship between Claudine and Hattie Mae is complex and frustrating. Hattie Mae has one goal in life—to get Claudine away from the small, backwater town and on to the stage as a premier violinist. When a traumatic event changes the course of Claudine’s life, Hattie Mae does not give up… she bides her time… because she must. Giving up is not an option. Only by giving Claudine the career and life she deserves can Hattie Mae free herself from her own personal hell… a lifetime of being controlled by a caustic, powerful man intent on keeping Hattie Mae close.
Hattie Mae Jones—WOW!—by far, the strongest female character I’ve ever read, yet even she has breaking points. She keeps everything close to the vest, but her pain cannot stay hidden. Hattie Mae doesn’t wallow in self-pity though, nor does she waste time and energy on sentiments like love. Betrayed by the first man she loved, and then by a man she wanted nothing to do with, her heart is cold and closed, with only enough room for Claudine. However, Hattie Mae still doesn’t show affection with words, but by the things she does to free them both.
Claudine marries a man who Hattie Mae knows will only hold her back and keep her beaten down. Getting rid of the husband becomes priority number one for her as well as the low-life father searching for a way to profit from the situation. (The men in this story…whew! Get ready to bring the man-hate!)
All this, plus a startling admission by Hattie Mae, turns the women’s relationship contemptuous. It is only when Claudine witnesses the lengths Hattie Mae will go to protect her, does she get a sense of clarity and begin to fight back for herself. Claudine will go through a transformation to achieve her goals but the lies and deceit do not end.
I haven’t read a story about women with this much strength of character and determination since The Color Purple. It’s telling though that when pushed, each woman will defy the one person who only wants the best for them. Hattie Mae will defy Gracian—her mother, Claudine will defy Hattie Mae, and when the truth, at last, comes to the light, Claudine’s own daughter will hold her accountable… and walk away.
This is a great read!
This was the first book I’ve read by this author, and I could only find one other title—I’ve ordered a print copy—but she is an amazing storyteller who I hope will write more.
I read this book on the last day of 2017—it’s been on my Kindle for over a year—but great writing, great pacing and incredible plot twists easily make this my favorite read of the year.
I give Bliss: A Novel my highest recommendation!
“Sometimes a lie is the best thing.”
Francesca Valentine is a successful, beautiful, world-renowned violinist. But when her perfect life is shattered, she must confess to a history of carefully calculated deception.
Claudine Jenkins was a musical prodigy who clung to her one true love—a violin given to her by her aunt Hattie Mae. Claudine grew up protecting herself from the tauntings of her father and her twin brother by eating herself into obesity. Her mother was an alcoholic who was indifferent to her, at best. But all that would soon change.
Feared by most, yet adored for her exotic beauty, Hattie Mae Jones remained a mystery even to those who thought they knew her best. But when her dark past threatened to destroy her perfectly laid plans for the future, she became determined to have her way. Would she have gone as far as committing murder?
What happens when three generations of lies come to the surface? Power, deceit, greed, and lust collide—leaving you with sheer Bliss.
Genre: Women’s Fiction/African American/Psychological
Release date: September 30, 2008