Karen E. Quinones Miller
In her latest novel, Ida B., Harlem native and former Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Karen Quinones Miller uses the quick wit she is known for to draw characters fresh from urban life. By and large, the author of Satin Doll doesn’t disappoint in her effort to paint the psyches of those who know despair but are unwilling to die without reaching their dreams. And in following that credo, each character makes gains—even if his or her troubles are miraculously tied up at the end in a neat little bow, instead of sustained throughout.
The time is now, 25 years after the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Tower was built in the late 1970s. Brenda, Sharif, and Rosa have lived under Ida B.’s roof for most of their lives, which would explain why they’re such unlikely friends. Sharif is an openly gay African-American activist who everyone in the building depends on. Brenda is an African-American single mother of four who longs to be a writer. And Rosa is a Puerto Rican actress who looks like Rosie Perez but vows to be the next Jennifer Lopez, or better yet, Nicole Kidman. We automatically expect big things from all three, but while Sharif shines and Rosa makes gains, Brenda does little more than exist—even when she witnesses a tenant jump to her death from the local welfare office, after throwing two of her children out the window in front of her.
After this catalyzing start, however, Miller uses the middle of the book to introduce quirky minor characters and give a slice of life in the ghetto in dramatizations that pale in comparison to the best and later parts of the book. The pacing becomes an inconsistent dance of hypnotically sexy tango followed by waltz, which only picks up later as the fateful murder/suicide unfolds into more violence and recrimination.
While Miller paints a realistic canvas of what life is like in the Harlem projects, and draws the reader into her drama-pebbled plot with unexpected wit and gritty charm, none of this keeps Ida B. from falling flat midway through. By then, the reader is already hungry for the suspense that was promised in the beginning. But if Ida B. lacks consistency, it does eventually reach some satisfying resolutions, as the residents of the tower gradually find self-salvation and strength.