The House of Eve: A Novel
- By Sadeqa Johnson
- Simon & Schuster
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- February 8, 2023
The parallel stories of two women highlight the contaminating effect of racism across generations.
There’s a moment near the end of Sadeqa Johnson’s latest novel, The House of Eve, that makes direct reference to characters in her previous novel, Yellow Wife, thus linking the two stories. For her fans, there’s the delicious frisson that comes from understanding the reference. At the same time, the connection highlights how the 100-plus years separating the two tales is not nearly long enough to repair the generational trauma of chattel slavery.
In many ways, Eve is a spiritual sequel to Wife, underlining the racism, classism, and gaping opportunity gaps that have spilled from slavery and leached like a vast oil slick across centuries, contaminating all in its path.
Opening in 1948, Eve’s chapters alternate between telling the story of Ruby, a high school student growing up poor in Philadelphia, and Eleanor, a lower-middle-class girl from Ohio attending Howard University in Washington, DC.
Ruby is an excellent student and talented painter who’s being held back by poverty, family obligations, and Inez, her cold, angry mother. Her stability comes from Nene, the grandmother who raised her but is now blind, and Marie, the no-nonsense aunt who takes Ruby in whenever Inez throws her out. Ruby dreams of becoming an ophthalmologist so that she can help people like Nene and break the cycle of low-paying cleaning jobs that chain the women in her family. She has one shot at a scholarship that will pave the road out.
In comparison, Eleanor’s challenges seem less pressing. When we meet her, she’s just learning of her rejection by the premier sorority on campus, the ABCs, composed entirely of well-connected, light-skinned girls. Having grown up in a mixed-race neighborhood in a small town, Eleanor has been oblivious to the rules that are second nature to DC natives like her more worldly roommate, Nadine:
“Honestly, she hadn’t even known that Negroes separated themselves by color until she stepped foot onto the all-Negro university’s campus a year ago.”
And then both young women fall in love with men who, according to society’s rules, are unavailable to them. Again, the stakes are higher and the possible consequences more fraught for Ruby. The boy who is kind to her, giving rather than taking, who shares her interests and truly seems to see her, is Shimmy, the son of Marie’s white, Jewish landlord. There is more than angry disdain of such a couple; there are laws against them.
In Washington, Eleanor falls for William, scion of a Black, monied, first family of DC, son and grandson of doctors, with a mother who sits on civic boards and has significant plans for her boy. When William takes Eleanor to meet his parents, she is stunned by everything she experiences, from the vast richness of the house to the fact that she is surrounded by people she initially mistakes for white.
Though both Shimmy and William are in love, it’s clear that they do not understand, and probably are incapable of understanding, the realities of their beloveds’ positions. Shimmy is sweet but oh so naïve about what the world has in store for them, while William breezily assures Eleanor of his parents, “They like who I like.”
It is when both women become pregnant that their stories diverge sharply. After a brief hesitation to digest the news, William proposes marriage; his mother, Rose, with no alternative, goes into overdrive to get them to the altar before the pregnancy announces itself. When Eleanor miscarries ahead of the nuptials, the couple keeps the news to themselves until they are safely wed. Though Eleanor knows she’s on shaky ground with her mother-in-law — and William shows a worrisome tendency to over-involve Rose in their business — her married life is initially dreamy, until she miscarries again.
For Ruby, there is no possibility that she and Shimmy can find a happily-ever-after. When Marie’s attempt to procure an illegal abortion for Ruby is stymied, they both sense Ruby’s sliver of upward opportunity slipping away. To cement the end of the couple’s relationship, Shimmy’s mother — using threats and bribery — coaxes Ruby into absenting herself to the House of Magdalene in Washington, DC, the mission of which is “to assist the prostitutes, troubled, lost and fallen women and wayward girls.” It’s just as grim as it sounds.
Alternating Ruby’s and Eleanor’s chapters offers an exceptional device for drawing out these parallel stories and building tension as to when and how they will intersect. As readers, we’re fully invested in wanting Ruby to triumph over the systemic and personal cruelties heaped upon her. Johnson’s approach reinforces this impulse by having Ruby narrate her own story, while a close third person speaks for Eleanor.
The House of Eve spotlights many thorny issues, including the countless layers of absorbed racism embedded in Rose’s proud declaration, “We held ourselves apart from the common sharecroppers who were uneducated, black and dirt poor. And why shouldn’t we? We had nothing in common with them.” One wonders whether she has ever contemplated what her ancestors were forced to endure in order to bequeath her her lighter skin tone.
Interestingly, one of the most affecting aspects for me was reading the author’s note and learning that much of Ruby and Inez’s fraught relationship was based on Johnson’s experience of her mother and grandmother, who “shared a feeling of deep-rooted disgrace” from which their own tumult sprang.
The House of Eve leaves readers with a yearning for closure, for something tidy and reassuring, which of course is not at all how the world works. We want to ask Ruby, “Was it all worth it?” But, not knowing what alternatives might have been, who among us could answer that question?
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.