Miss Ophelia

Mary Burnett Smith, Author
Mary Burnett Smith, Author William Morrow & Company $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-688-15234-5
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
Hardcover - 400 pages - 978-0-7838-8402-8
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-688-16357-0
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Among the recent crop of fiction from black women, this sensitive coming-of-age novel, Smith's first, is exceptional. The elderly narrator flashes back to the summer of 1948, when she was 11 and known as Isabel ""Belly"" Anderson. Precocious Belly lives a happy life with her saintly mother and her Uncle Willie in Pharoah, an all-black community in Mason County, Va. But the promise of piano lessons and the sudden departure of her best friend--who's become pregnant--convince Belly to spend the summer in a neighboring town assisting her convalescing Aunt Rachel. Rachel's reputation for meanness is outweighed by the prospect of taking piano with Miss Ophelia Love. Living away from home for the first time, Belly finds a surrogate mother in Miss Ophelia and learns that someone she respects can also need her help and compassion. The plot isn't terribly original, but Smith, a former Philadelphia schoolteacher, handles it with notable delicacy, capturing the complex way in which Belly half-comprehends the lives of the adults around her. Never heavy-handed or preachy, Smith deftly touches on issues of unplanned pregnancy, religious hypocrisy, color distinctions within black communities and human weakness. With an intelligent child's intuition, Belly reports the nuances she senses, but can't fully understand, in a voice that evokes not only her own bewilderment but also the fabric of life--often intensely pleasurable--during a slow Southern summer: preening at church, gossiping, drinking lemonade and, of course, playing the piano. As Belly plays a crucial role in a family drama that visits old wounds and breaks hearts anew, Smith renders her character's bittersweet passage into adulthood wholly engaging. Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club featured alternates; author tour. (Sept.)
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