Each time I finish a Gloria Naylor novel, I am surprised at how little commercial acclaim she’s received for her excellent body of work. Women of Brewster Place is her her first and most famous novel turned into a television mini series and a spinoff, entitled Brewster Place. Critically, Gloria Naylor is a literary darling, winning several awards for her work, including the 1983 National Book Award for Women of Brewster Place. Yet, commercially, she is far less known than her contemporaries, such as Alice Walker, although they both deal with similar themes around Black women negotiating hegemonic systems.
Set in a remote location, Bailey’s Cafe is narrated by the husband and wife cafe owners who share the stories of the colorful people who visit their establishment. Most of the stories center around women and their issues with beauty, race, gender, sexual identity and finding a place in the world which empowers them outside of the male gaze. The point of view (POV)often shifts from the primary narrators, to the featured characters that the narrators discuss while chatting with others at the cafe. The change in POV provides details and background information to help the reader understand what brought the person to Bailey’s Cafe in the first place, reasons that provide depth to the characters. Otherwise, readers would see this small town through the eyes of the narrators, which are limited at best. Naylor artfully uses religious symbolism throughout the novel even though sometimes she misses the mark (the story about the Jewish woman and her immaculate conception was confusing at best).
When Terry McMillan spoke of black women telling “black” stories and receiving little recognition, while white people craft similar stories and the books become bestsellers (ie. Katheryn Stockett via “The Help”), Naylor’s literary work is a testament to McMillan’s provocative statement. Yet, even Terry McMillan is more of a household name than Gloria Naylor! From beginning to end, Naylor crafts a beautiful story, but like many of her novels, will not receive the commercial accolades that it deserves.