Jessica's Reviews > The Street

The Street by Ann Petry
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I'm hesitant to give this four stars for a couple of reasons: one, because I know it was flawed in certain important ways, but to me the stars have to do with how much I personally enjoyed a book, not how technically "good" it was, so I think that's okay. The main reason I'm afraid of singing this book's praises too loudly is that I really loved it, and being able to see its problems and knowing other people might not think it's good really hurts my feelings. I feel protective of this book, and it upsets me to think about other people maligning it. So please don't read this unless you're going to like it!

The Street is Ann Petry's 1946 novel about single mother Lutie Johnson's efforts to raise her son and escape poverty while living on 116h Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Harlem. Young, black, beautiful, poor, and socially isolated, Lutie is constantly and acutely aware of the ways in which her existence and her son's future are limited and crushed by the forces of racism and class. I am sure that today's college students really freak out about this book for its sophisticated mid-twentieth-century examination of the paradigm of intersectionality: race! class! gender! It's all here, in this artfully structured novel that moves easily among the perspectives of a handful of the Street's denizens. I found the characters in this book to be brilliantly crafted. Petry has us see through the eyes not just of Lutie but of her eight-year-old son; their malevolent, predatory, mentally-deranged super; the super's pathetic, oppressed, but resilient companion; the building's massive and fire-scarred, red-kerchiefed madam; and other characters whose individuality comes to life, even as Petry lends them each the dignity of her distinctive and -- I thought -- quite beautiful voice. That's really hard to do, and this book accomplished it. The characters make decisions and behave in ways that are often strange, morally questionable, or undoubtably wrong, but the author successfully makes them so human that we understand their reasoning and can't fully judge them.

The Street suffered from two major problems: one, social novel syndrome, by which I mean that Petry's obvious efforts to show the effects of racism and injustice on individuals' lives did often overwhelm the story and get too annoyingly obvious. Every page has Lutie's meditations on the the effects of racism, poverty, and segregated urban slums, and it did get tiresome and undermined the book's power. But a lot of this might have been due to its other flaw, first novel syndrome: The Street was Petry's first book, and it has many marks of that including unnecessary repetition, a failure at crucial points to trust the reader, and what I thought was a hasty, melodramatic, and unbelievable ending. I'm definitely interested in reading Petry's other books to see what she was like when she matured more as a writer. Her gifts of character and description are, I thought, sensational. I can picture Lutie's apartment, the building, and her street nearly as vividly as I can see my own, and all the characters were as physically and nearly as psychologically real to me as the people I encounter in daily life. Since few books can convey a physical environment to me so well, I really found this to be special.

I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in a depiction of Harlem in the days before drugs (on a wide scale), guns, housing projects, white gentrification, and extensive social services and welfare benefits. I'm pretty familiar with the neighborhood she's talking about, and it was very interesting to see how things have and have not changed since the 1940s. This is one of the better novels I've read about Black American urban life in the pre-Civil-Rights era, and I might recommend it for that to some parties. But the real reason I thought The Street was so good was on its merits as a work of fiction. While I know the social novel stuff could turn off a lot of readers, I felt the same delight from this as from a good children's storybook -- a very disturbing, upsetting children's storybook with a lot of sex and violence and human suffering. But it almost seemed illustrated, that's how vivid it was. I will definitely be reading more by Ann Petry and I'll recommend this book despite my concerns, though if you think it's bad I don't really want to hear about it.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by sdw (last edited Nov 22, 2009 09:58AM) (new)

sdw I really like The Street and I'm not one to complain about "social novel syndrome." But I recommend The Narrows .


message 2: by Amy Wilder (new)

Amy Wilder okay but can you read "Push" now and compare and contrast? Seems like it would be interesting but I hardly have the time do read one novel, let alone two, and I'm not afraid to impose on a total stranger...

On another note - I really enjoy your reviews. I always suspect people who say this about my blog are lying and they only read one, but I have been coming back all last week and this to read more. Do you write other stuff?


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