Playing dress-up is a glamorous, benign way to enter the realm of adulthood without an invitation. But what happens when reality intercedes and one ceases to pretend? In truth, growing up isn’t all lipstick and perfume flourishes, as the fashion-conscious Lillian Brown learns in Washington author Maxine Clair’s novel.
At 17, Lillian rechristens herself October, partly as a memorial to her mother, who died by her father’s hand in that month. October’s recollection of the murder is hazy at first, but the past slowly unfolds as she struggles to come to terms with her identity. After giving birth out of wedlock, she recoils from responsibility and entrusts her married sister, Vergie, with raising her son. Vergie stipulates that he never know his biological mother’s identity, but as he grows older, October realizes her selfish mistake and begins to long for him, to Vergie’s dread.
October Suite has some beautifully written, poetic passages, but one glaring omission is a strong sense of social and historical context. Although the story takes place during the 1950s and early ’60s, the civil-rights movement is barely mentioned. What’s more, despite the fact that October is both African-American and a teacher, there’s little suggestion of the racial politics in the educational system of the South, where the novel is set. On the other hand, this omission lends the novel an air of timelessness that transcends race: It’s the story of a girl enamored with playing dress-up who comes into her own to discover that she carries the clothes that once carried her.