McFadden, Bernice L. 1965–
McFadden, Bernice L. 1965–
PERSONAL: Born September 26, 1965, in New York, NY; daughter of Robert (an express mail delivery company employee) and Vivian (an office clerk) McFadden; children: R'yane Azsa. Ethnicity: "African-American" Education: Attended Laboratory Institute of Merchandising, Fordham University, 1983; Marymount College, certificate in travel and tourism; studied literature, history, and journalism at Fordham University. Politics: Democrat.
CAREER: Writer. Has worked as a fashion buyer for Bloomingdale's and Itokin; employed by Rockresorts, beginning c. 1988; held various corporate jobs, 1991–97.
AWARDS, HONORS: Black Caucus Fiction Honor Award, American Library Association 2000, for Sugar.
Sugar, Dutton (New York, NY), 2000.
The Warmest December, Dutton (New York, NY), 2001.
This Bitter Earth (sequel to Sugar), Dutton (New York, NY), 2002.
Loving Donovan, Dutton (New York, NY), 2003
Camilla's Roses, Dutton (New York, NY), 2004.
(Under pseudonym Geneva Holliday) Groove, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2005.
(Under pseudonym Geneva Holliday) Fever (sequel to Groove), Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2006.
Nowhere Is a Place, Dutton (New York, NY), 2006.
SIDELIGHTS: Bernice L. McFadden has been praised by such writers as Toni Morrison and Terry McMillan as a fresh new voice in literature. In novels such as Sugar and its sequel, This Bitter Earth, as well as The Warmest December and Loving Donovan, McFadden explores themes from redemption and reunion to unrequited love, child abuse, alcoholism, and prostitution. Her writing is, according to a contributor to Black Voices Online, "filled with … lyrical language, haunting imagery, and compelling voice."
Yet McFadden's voice might not have been heard had she not been laid off from her job in 1990. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, McFadden studied to become an international clothing buyer, a position she held for a time at Bloomingdale's before growing bored with the work. Going into the travel industry, she became unemployed in 1990 when the company she was working for was sold. By this time she had a daughter and few options. "I really felt like a statistic," McFadden told a contributor to USA Today online. "A young, single, black mother with no job. I didn't like the way that felt." With six months severance pay in hand, she set about reading black authors such as Alice Walker, Morrison, Nella Larson, and Zora Neale Hurston, determined to turn her own pastime of short story writing into a profession. It took nine years and a succession of other jobs before McFadden published her first novel in 2000.
This debut novel, Sugar, became a national best seller and confirmed McFadden's commitment to becoming a professional writer. Set in the fictional town of Bigelow, Arkansas, around 1950, the novel traces the dual story of a woman named Sugar Lacey and her friend, Jude Pearl Taylor. Both women have been scarred by the past: Taylor's daughter was sexually assaulted and killed fifteen years before the beginning of the novel. She turned to the church for sustenance and has withdrawn socially since then. Sugar, who lost her own mother early, was brought up in a bordello and works as a prostitute. When this beautiful young black woman moves in next door, however, Taylor is reminded of her own daughter and begins to come out of her shell. Over slices of sweet potato pie, the two form an unlikely bond. When word gets out in the small town that Sugar is a prostitute, Taylor goes against convention and sticks by her new friend in this novel of "redemption and forgiveness," as Booklist critic Vanessa Bush described the tale. Bush further found this first novel to be "tragic and engaging."
Ann Burns and Emily J. Jones, writing in Library Journal, considered Sugar to be a "touching first novel," while Ellen Flexman, writing in the same journal, called the book an "earthy slice of life in a small Southern town." Flexman also noted that McFadden manages to capture the "strengths and weaknesses" of a small town and the people who inhabit it. A contributor to Publishers Weekly had mixed feelings about McFadden's tale. Noting the "surfeit of maudlin moments and some overwriting that is inadvertently funny," the same critic still insisted that Sugar is an "ambitious first novel [that] will appeal to readers." And Bill Kent, reviewing the novel for the New York Times, concluded that McFadden reveals "the historical and sexual transgressions that link her long-suffering characters, who must learn to forgive themselves before they can be saved from their pasts."
In McFadden's second novel, The Warmest December, redemption and forgiveness are again at the center of the story when Kenzie must deal with her past while visiting her dying father. "With an engaging vitality," wrote a contributor to Kirkus Reviews "McFadden … explores a familiar subject—a daughter's troubled relationship with her abusive alcoholic father." Kenzie grew up in Brooklyn during the 1970s, helped her father, Hy-Lo, run a liquor store, and tried to keep her head down when he was drunk and beat her. Now, as she visits her father at his bedside, she is herself a recovering alcoholic who has gone from New York City executive to welfare recipient. Kenzie must learn to somehow try and understand her father's life in order to forgive him and move on with her own. The Kirkus Reviews contributor had praise for McFadden's "perfect emotional pitch and tone," while Cheryl Ferguson, writing in Black Issues Book Review, commended the "emotional depth, the aching poignancy that breathes life into McFadden's latest literary lifeline." Likewise, Booklist critic Bush called McFadden's second effort a "sad and touching novel," and a critic for Publishers Weekly noted that the book's "cathartic message of forgiveness and recovery will elicit tears."
McFadden returned to the protagonist of her first novel with her 2002 title, This Bitter Earth. This novel continues from the point where Sugar left off, leading the protagonist to surprising revelations about her family. Sugar decides to return to her hometown of Short Junction, Arkansas, to try to learn about her past. The Lacey sisters who raised her in their bordello are happy to see her return, and satisfy her curiosity about her parents. Among the dark secrets that have determined Sugar's life are a playboy filled with jealousy and a voodoo curse. Sugar learns that she is in fact the half-sister of Pearl Taylor's murdered daughter, Jude. When the sisters die, Sugar inherits enough money to live comfortably, but nagging questions take her to St. Louis to see an old friend. Here she finds that this woman's granddaughter is a heroin addict, and Sugar intervenes to save the girl, ultimately taking her back to Bigelow, Arkansas. A Publishers Weekly contributor called the novel a "heartfelt but lackluster sequel," while Lynda Jones attested in the Black Issues Book Review that McFadden fashions an "ambitious and dramatic story that is part murder mystery, part love story and part her story." Bush, writing again in Booklist, called This Bitter Earth a "complex, vivid novel."
McFadden's "bittersweet fourth novel," as a contributor to Publishers Weekly described it, is Loving Donovan. This novel traces a love affair through the voices of the two people involved. Part one of the book is told from Campbell's point of view. Only eight years old and growing up in a Brooklyn housing project, where she witnesses her mother's sadness over her father's continued infidelities, the young girl vows never have her heart broken by any man. At age fifteen she does just that, however, and becomes pregnant by a boy who then leaves her. Donovan, meanwhile, has a similar childhood living with troubled parents, except that his life is permanently damaged when a pedophile boarder abuses him in his home. He grows up fearful of commitment—except to his work. He and Campbell meet in the final section of the novel. She has since become an artist, and though they have both survived their childhood, it is unclear whether they are healed enough to form a lasting relationship. Booklist critic Bush felt that McFadden demonstrates with this novel the "limitations of love and fate."
In Camilla's Roses, McFadden tells the story of Camilla, a successful woman who turned her back on her troubled family only to return to them for healing once she is diagnosed with breast cancer. Bush, writing again in Booklist, predicted that the author "will enrapture readers again as she moves between the … perspectives of different characters." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the novel "an old-fashioned, there's-no-place-like-home melodrama complete with affirming life lesson." Sherry in Nowhere Is a Place is similar in some ways to Camilla: she travels the world and has numerous relationships as she tries to avoid her family at all costs. When she decides to travel with her mother from Nevada to a family reunion in Alabama, however, the two reminisce about family and soon uncover a secret long buried. Noting in Booklist that McFadden tells the story from both the mother's and the daughter's perspectives, Bush felt that the approach "brings added texture to this story of reconciliation." A Kirkus Reviews contributor concluded that the novel is "well paced, with excellent dialogue."
McFadden has also adopted the pseudonym Geneva Holliday to write humorous romantic fiction. In the 2005 novel Groove, the author tells the story of four African American friends living in New York City who deal with everything from poverty to homosexuality to troubled partners. Leslie Hayden, writing in the Library Journal, called Holliday "a new voice to reckon with in the erotic fiction genre." Fever, McFadden's second book as Holliday, is a sequel to Groove and rejoins the four friends as they take lovers and visit a swinger's club. Hayden, once again writing in the Library Journal, called the novel "a page turner" and noted that the story "will keep … [readers] captive until the very end." A Publishers Weekly contributor similarly felt that Fever will "offer Groove fans more trashy fun."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Black Issues Book Review, March, 2001, Cheryl Ferguson, review of The Warmest December, p. 20; March-April, 2002, Lynda Jones, review of This Bitter Earth, pp. 32-33; January-February, 2003, Robin Green-Cary, review of Loving Donovan, p. 33; September-October, 2005, Cecily D. Cooper, review of Groove, p. 64.
Booklist, November 15, 1999, Vanessa Bush, review of Sugar, p. 605; January 1, 2001, Vanessa Bush, review of The Warmest December, p. 919; January 1, 2002, Vanessa Bush, review of This Bitter Earth, p. 811; February 15, 2003, Vanessa Bush, review of Loving Donovan, p. 1044; May 1, 2004, Vanessa Bush, review of Camilla's Roses, p. 1546; January 1, 2006, Vanessa Bush, review of Nowhere Is a Place, p. 57.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2000, review of The Warmest December, p. 1565; December 1, 2001, review of This Bitter Earth, p. 1683; November 15, 2002, review of Loving Donovan, p. 1648; April 1, 2004, review of Camilla's Roses, p. 290; December 15, 2005, review of Nowhere Is a Place, p. 1294; February 15, 2006, review of Fever, p. 150.
Library Journal, November 1, 1999, Ann Burns and Emily Joy Jones, review of Sugar, p. 103; December, 1999, Ellen Flexman, review of Sugar, p. 187; November 1, 2000, Ann Burns and Emily Joy Jones, review of The Warmest December, p. 101; June 1, 2005, Leslie Hayden, review of Groove, p. 117; December 1, 2005, Leslie Hayden, review of Nowhere Is a Place, p. 114; April 1, 2006, Leslie Hayden, review of Fever, p. 82.
New York Daily News, July 25, 2005, Celia McGee, "5 Minutes with Geneva Holliday."
Publishers Weekly, November 1, 1999, review of Sugar, p. 72; November 13, 2000, review of The Warmest December, p. 86; January 14, 2002, review of This Bitter Earth, p. 40; January 6, 2003, review of Loving Donovan, pp. 37-38; May 23, 2005, review of Groove, p. 56; December 5, 2005, review of Nowhere Is a Place, p. 29; February 27, 2006, review of Fever, p. 33; March 6, 2006, V.R. Peterson, "The Name Game: Don't Confuse the Author of Fever with the Author of Nowhere Is a Place," p. 44.
African American Literature Book Club, http://www.reviews.aalbc.com/ (July 8, 2003), reviews of This Bitter Earth and Loving Donovan; (September 2, 2006), review of Camilla's Roses; (September 2, 2006), brief profile of Bernice L. McFadden.
Bernice L. McFadden Blog, http://firstborngirl.blogspot.com (September 2, 2006).
Bernice L. McFadden Home Page, http://www.bernicemcfadden.com (July 8, 2003).
Black Voices Online, http://www.blackvoices.com/ (February 14, 2002), review of This Bitter Earth.
Curled Up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (July 8, 2003), review of Loving Donovan.
Geneva Holliday Home Page, http://www.genevaholliday.com (September 2, 2006).
New York Times Online, http://query.nytimes.com/ (February 13, 2000), Bill Kent, review of Sugar.
Urban Reviews, http://www.urban-reviews.com/ (September 2, 2006), interview with Bernice L. McFadden.