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Brown Girls

Review

Brown Girls

Written in soaring, lyrical prose, Daphne Palasi Andreades’ debut novel, BROWN GIRLS, is a love letter to girls who have worn the label of “other” for too long, all the while developing their own shimmering, passionate and deeply introspective lives and relationships.

Set in Queens, New York, the book immediately immerses readers in New York’s most vibrant borough, where airplanes fly low enough to shake the buildings, verdant trees tangle with power lines, and colorful bed sheets and clothing articles decorate the laundry lines across front yards. The main street, nicknamed the “Boulevard of Death” by the media, boasts cheap manicures, sizzling food from a multitude of countries, and a lifetime of backbreaking industry. Amid these sights, a group of young girls come of age, bound by their brown skin --- the shades of root beer, beach sand, fertile soil, grilled meat and even the white of snow --- and a shared attempt to assimilate into American culture while celebrating their own myriad backgrounds and those of the relatives who came before them.

"With no character arcs to follow or individual women to root for, the book asks for a big leap of faith from readers. But trust me when I say that it is worth it."

BROWN GIRLS is told in the choral “we.” No single narrator emerges as a lifeline, which can make the novel difficult to sink your teeth into at first. But with each chapter, Andreades pulls readers in closer to the real heart of the story: the pulsing beat by which brown girls everywhere feel, love, think, grow and thrive. Each chapter, written almost like an essay mashed into a poem, highlights a singular problem or issue faced by brown girls: helping other relatives adapt to America, navigating the American education system without resources, and defending their choices not only to white Americans but to their immigrant parents. Through each vignette, Andreades unpacks the social and emotional pressures put on (young) women of color, the ways that they are always watched, judged and found lacking.

Despite her clear-eyed, unflinching reporting on these powerful issues, BROWN GIRLS remains impossibly tender and celebratory, full of vibrant culture and eclectic descriptions. Amid the admonitions of strict mothers and the microaggressions of teachers, the girls deal in the sounds of loud, raucous parties full of gossip, note the vivid color of a dripping popsicle on a steamy day, and belt out the effortlessly catchy tunes of Mariah Carey and other pop stars.

Andreades never lets her readers forget that these girls are not the ones you usually read about or watch on TV, but she also reminds us that they are still normal teenagers: emotional, hormonal and obsessive. They fall for boys, break hearts, shorten their skirts when no one is looking, and still call their mothers for help when they need it, even if it means a harsh scolding. At the same time, they form tight, almost romantic relationships with one another, their friendships so hungry that they vow never to let them break apart. Until they do.

Andreades follows her brown girls through the woes of high school applications, the draw of the city and the pull of expensive higher education. Though we learn their names only in passing, some of these characters stand out for their decisions to leave Queens behind, visit their motherlands or shed the group entirely. Whatever the deciding factor, each is drawn by some wish: to be more American, to be truer to her roots, to find a way to blend her two cultures and create something different.

Continuing through the Trump administration and even the beginnings of the pandemic, BROWN GIRLS feels searingly timely and also timeless, thanks to its firm grounding in Queens, a place the girls carry with them wherever they go. With no character arcs to follow or individual women to root for, the book asks for a big leap of faith from readers. But trust me when I say that it is worth it.

Although Andreades takes an unusual path in her choice of narrative structure, the result highlights the universality of the immigrant or first-generation experience, and speaks to the struggles of young women of color hiding, getting by or thriving in every corner of America. The fact that she can do this while maintaining a buoyant, hopeful air and a deeply immersive setting (read this book and tell me you can’t smell the food or hear the music) makes Andreades an incredibly deft writer and BROWN GIRLS an unforgettable, inventive read.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 21, 2022

Brown Girls
by Daphne Palasi Andreades

  • Publication Date: January 4, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0593243420
  • ISBN-13: 9780593243428