Pearl Cleage,
What Looks Like Crazy
(on an ordinary day)

(Avon Books, 1997)

I'm dubious of the whole "Oprah Book Club" thing. I've been sucked in by the hype before, picking up a book or two that aren't in my normal areas of interest, based on the comments that the group of twelve women give after reading this book or that one. Without fail, I've found them to be disturbingly boring, or worse, worthy of the phrase Dorothy Parker coined, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be hurled with great force." (Most notable example: Alice Hoffman's Here and Now, which evoked an actual physical reaction, prompting me to carrry the book between two fingers as if it were a dirty diaper. I shudder, even now.)

As a result, I was also dubious when a friend recommended What Looks Like Crazy (on an ordinary day) by Pearl Cleage. "Isn't that an Oprah book?" I asked her. She looked at me with a look one usually reserves for white supremacists and the mentally ill. "Yes, but read it."

So I bought it, letting it sit at the very bottom of my books-to-read pile until all the other options had been exhausted. It stared up at me with an almost challenging look, daring me to go buy more to stack atop it to avoid the inevitable. Ah, well, I thought. I already spent the money on the stupid thing, I might as well read it.

Surprisingly enough, ten pages into it, I didn't hate it. I didn't have to force myself to keep going or develop the overwhelming urge to vomit (which usually accompanies the Oprah Books of recent memory).

The story is simple on the surface: Ava Johnson returns to her small, Michigan hometown after ten years away. She is broken and bored, and living with HIV. It is a temporary visit, just for the summer, and just to visit her sister.

I even found myself liking this book. I stopped several times to check the cover. Yes, the "Oprah's Book Club Selection" seal was still there. I hadn't purchased another book by accident.

Of course, the story doesn't stay simple for long. Ava's life is complicated by a preacher's wife with seemingly nothing to do but meddle, her sister's adoption of a crack baby, and worse, by her dead brother-in-law's zen-loving former partner-in-crime, who seems to be one of the best friends she's got.

With the introduction of this last element, I groaned, figuring that from here on out, the book would denigrate into a sordid love affair and tearful surrender and all the things I despise about the usual crop of women's fiction. I thought she'd make some point about always using a condom or would overmoralize about promiscuity.

Surprisingly, Cleage didn't. And the novel was as good in the last ten pages as it was in the first. You could have picked up my jaw from the floor when I finished. The ending was a little trite, a little expected, but nowhere near the hideous experience I thought it'd be.

I daresay, it was good, though I won't be rushing out to buy the Oprah volumes that I've missed.

What Looks Like Crazy was more than worth the cover price. I'll be scouring used bookstores for a copy without the Oprah logo on it, just to I feel less pop-culturally driven. It's one of those books that I don't mind buying two copies of -- I know that I'll read it again, and recommend it to friends.

Just lay your book prejudices aside when you pick it up.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

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