REVIEW: No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts

In brief: In the small town of Pinewood, Sylvia’s family have their own problems. But when JJ returns to town, he brings them all to the surface…

The good: You can’t help but get involved in the lives of each character.

The not-so-good: I found the start confusing – who are all these people and why aren’t they mentioned on the blurb?

Why I chose it: I follow Sarah Jessica Parker’s shoe and book recommendations. Thanks Penguin for the copy.

Year: 2018 (original 2017)

Pages: 371

Publisher: Viking (Penguin)

Setting: North Carolina, USA

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Quite a bit has been said about No One is Coming to Save Us being an African-American version of The Great Gatsby. The first thing you need to do when reading this book in my opinion is to forget all that. Yes, there’s a big house and a guy who calls himself Jay. But this book stands very well on its own merits without trying to label the characters as Daisy, Nick or Jay. It’s a story about family, about facing up to the demons of the past and present and trying to move on.

I’ll admit that I found the start of the book quite confusing, likely because the people in the first couple of chapters didn’t match up to the blurb. Who was Marcus? Did Sylvia have another son not mentioned on the back cover? Why is he in gaol? When is JJ coming into the story more? The best way I found to overcome this was just to keep reading (and if that involved lying on the floor when the air conditioner was broken, that’s okay). It all came together for a story that is heartbreaking yet fascinating.

Stephanie Powell Watts has chosen a setting that isn’t commonly explored in the books I’ve been reading lately. Pinewood is a small town in North Carolina that’s dying. The furniture factories are going out of business as work is outsourced overseas. People are poor and the whole town has an air of desperation. It’s only the older townspeople like Sylvia and her husband Don who remember the town as a busier place, one that was less friendly to the African-American people. Sylvia has done her best to bring up her family and bring them out of poverty. On the material side, she’s done well. Daughter Ava has a college education and works at the local bank. Her son Devon – well, that’s a different story. But what Sylvia can’t achieve is happiness for her whole family. Ava’s married to Henry, who is underworked and bored. Sylvia knows that Henry isn’t good enough for Ava, but when former boyfriend JJ returns, she’s not sure whether she wants that for Ava either. Sylvia’s own husband Don is making a fool of himself with a young girl. It seems that none of her family is truly content.

Enjoyed is not the right word, but getting to look inside each of the character’s heads and feeling their pain and struggle was a great way to tell this story. I felt it brought me closer to the characters as a result and I really grew to love Sylvia. The way she describes her past and her worries for her family was sweet, right down to how she tries to meddle (with the best intentions) in a stranger’s life. I even grew to like the hapless Don. JJ was the only character I couldn’t quite connect with, perhaps due to his mysteriousness regarding his past. He seems to think that Ava can solve all his problems. Possibly the Ava of twenty years ago could have, but she’s grown past JJ. Like the other female characters, she’s strong, but just needs time to realise it.

I liked No One is Coming to Save Us. Perhaps without the expectations of The Great Gatsby theme, I would have liked it more. Would I read another book by Stephanie Powell Watts? Yes, but I’m steering clear of any comparisons!

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