My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Curse you, Michael Malone! CURSE YOU for keeping me up late at night and making me deplete half my stock of tissues.
I read his novel The Four Corners of the Sky, which, despite it not being typical of my usual reading preferences, I thoroughly enjoyed. When this was offered as a Free Fridays pick for the Nook, I jumped on it. I expected a good read, perhaps a little dramatic considering the racial tones of the plot. What I got was an emotional juggernaut.
The story flows over 40 years and 12 Christmases, beginning in 1963 and centering around the unlikely friendship between Noni, a privileged white girl, and Kaye, the African-American grandson of Noni’s family’s maid. They were born hours apart, she on Christmas Eve and he on Christmas Day, and this tie binds them together. Sounds like it has strains of other novels written about the relationship between people of different races in the South, right? Well, it does–to a degree. The typical barriers to white-black relations are dealt with, but not as dramatically as in other novels. In fact, I’d say that racial injustice was mostly glossed over; it was mentioned, illustrated in a few ways, but then placed aside to get to the heart of the story–love, in all its forms.
Don’t misunderstand me–I wouldn’t classify this as a romance novel. It’s definitely dramatic fiction. As you read it, you find yourself hoping, praying, that Noni and Kaye would just get of their own way and find each other. So many times I wanted to reach in and shake Noni–couldn’t she see that Roland is a poor choice for a mate? I felt Kaye’s anger and frustration when she wouldn’t listen to him. At the same time, I wanted to slap Kaye and tell him to get over himself! Shelve the pride and tell the girl you love her! Each new chapter (which tells the story of the couple where they are at that point in time), I would anxiously wait to read that Noni and Kaye are together, finally. But whether that happens or not (and I will not spoil that for you), the love between them can’t be denied. It’s not just passion or attraction, it’s a deep abiding love, the kind that can only begin with a lifelong friendship and commitment to one another. Kaye and Noni are each an extension of the other, and nothing–not tragedy, not outside forces, not their own stubbornness–can break that.
This complex blend of platonic and romantic love between the protagonists is the driving force behind the story, but it isn’t the only sentiment Mr. Malone expresses. He deftly captures the love between a deeply flawed father and his daughter (Noni). Once we get to know Bud Tilden, we understand why Noni loves him so much, and why she makes the choices that she does, even if Kaye can’t seem to understand for himself. Malone touches on this relationship in concert with others that aren’t as special, are in fact toxic–Noni and her domineering, hyper-critical mother; Wade and his father and sister (Bud and Noni); Jack and his alcoholic son, Roland; Noni and Roland. All those bad relationships touch Noni, whereas while Kaye knows the pain of losing his mother, he has the full support and love of the rest of his family. This inability to empathize with Noni is one of the reasons Kaye is often frustrated, and can’t understand why Noni does what she does. The only good, pure love is between Noni and Kaye, but it keeps being tainted by all the other relationships. Still, there is a hopefulness in this novel that one of these Christmases, their love can transcend all the rest. They are soulmates, afterall.
I really don’t want to spoil the ending, so while you may guess what happens, I won’t go into specifics. Suffice it to say, you should have a box of Kleenex ready. The good, soft, three-ply kind. You’re going to need it.
The Last Noel is a beautifully written story by a talented author. You’ll be thinking of it long after you’ve put it down.