cover image Blackgammon


Heather Neff. One World, $24 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-345-43611-5

This ambitious first novel attempts to chronicle the lives of two African-American women expatriates. Chloe, an artist in her 30s, and Michael, a bright teenage girl with a boy's name, meet at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1970, when Michael inadvertently steps on Chloe's foot. Michael is in search of a role model, and Chloe warms to the eager girl; in time, the two grow close, and one day they each make the same vow: ""to be a strong black woman, to become a success, and never to let a man turn me away from my dreams."" Chloe is crowned the ""Pre-eminent Black Artist in Europe,"" while Michael becomes a distinguished literature professor at a small college outside of London. Their professional identities serve as little more than lifestyle indicators, however, since both women spend so much time in dramatic encounters with a series of men. Determined not to relinquish her independence for love, Chloe sabotages relationships with an actor and a playboy businessman, but discovers too late that her arid emotional life has leached her art of meaning. Michael, meanwhile, is emulating Chloe. Giving up the man she really loves for a phantom ideal, she comes close to losing everything before Chloe confesses that she has been living a lie. Although Neff attempts to frame the book as a conversation between her protagonists in which they look back on their lives, she seems often to forget this device, and the chronological confusion on top of the flatness of characterization leaves the reader without a foothold. There is always room for new books about strong and successful black women, and few have been written about female African-American expatriates. Unfortunately, this meandering, occasionally incoherent novel doesn't adequately fill any gaps. (Oct.)