PUSHKIN AND THE QUEEN OF SPADES
Release date: 05/01/2004
A starred or boxed review indicates a book of outstanding quality. A review with a blue-tinted title indicates a book of unusual commercial interest that hasn't received a starred or boxed review.
Randall made a big splash (and got into legal hot water) with her first novel, The Wind Done Gone , a parody of Margaret Mitchell's classic Civil War saga. Her second is nearly as provocative, chronicling the tribulations of an African-American professor of Russian literature whose pro football player son plans to marry a Russian lap dancer. Windsor Armstrong was raped by her mother's white boss just before she went off to Harvard. She named the child she had Pushkin X, went on to get her degree and raised her son almost singlehandedly. Twenty-five years later, she is a tenured professor, trying to adjust to the idea that Pushkin might marry a white stripper called Tanya. Windsor retraces her difficult history to find out how things ended up this way, reminiscing about her Detroit childhood, her glamorous gangster father and her self-centered mother, who took her away from her father and moved to Washington, D.C., and a more privileged life. The novel begins brilliantly, in high satiric mode, with intelligent, unpredictable riffs on Motown vs. D.C., rape and racism, and the difficulty of being a good parent. Windsor's touchstone is the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who was the great-grandson of an African slave presented to Peter the Great, and her interest in his complicated history is just one instance of Randall's clever, tables-turning musing on black identity. Windsor's self-questioning can be frustratingly circular, but even when her rhetoric runs away with her, her restless search for answers is stimulating. Fittingly, the novel ends with a rap version of Pushkin's unfinished novella "The Negro of Peter the Great," a conciliatory wedding gift Windsor has prepared for her son and his fiancée. With this heady tale, Randall proves decisively that she is more than a parodist. (May 4)
Forecast: An 11-city tour and heavy promotion (this is Houghton Mifflin's lead spring title) should help persuade readers that The Wind Done Gone was more than a flash in the pan.