Like her previous two novels, Tayari Jones' Silver Sparrow is set in urban Atlanta. It chronicles the lives of two sisters-one who knows that the other exists, and one who doesn't. The opening line of the novel, "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist", begins the ride through the world of Dana Lynn Yarboro, the 'secret' daughter of James and Gwen.
Dana's parents meet at the department store that Gwen works at when he comes in to buy an anniversary present for his wife. Gwen is still married herself, although long separated from her husband. Thus begins an affair that leads to the birth of Dana, while James' marriage to Laverne remains childless. Wanting her child to be legitimate, but knowing that James is already married, Gwen convinces him to cross state lines to Alabama and marry her there. Her best friend Willie Mae and James' adopted brother Raleigh-who signs Dana's birth certificate and aids James in his duplicity throughout the novel, are witnesses. It is Willie Mae who also points out another practical reason for marrying James-he is now considered a bigamist and this crime can be held over his head by Gwen should he ever mistreat her or attempt to leave.
Dana lives in a universe defined by secrecy and conflict. She gets only one night a week with her father-Wednesdays, when he tells his wife that he is working late at the limousine business that he owns with Raleigh. She learns from an early age not to speak about her father to anyone, even her friends or teachers. Her mother takes her on trips through town that they call "surveilling" in which they spy on her sister Chaurisse, and James' other wife, Laverne.
It's easy to feel empathy for Dana because while James attempts to be loving father on his weekly visits and provides financial support, she still suffers as the secret child. her life is constantly put on hold in order to maintain the family secret. If Dana is accepted to a school or summer camp and Chaurisse decides to enroll, Dana can't go. She is even forced to give up a coveted summer job at Six Flags because Chaurisse is also hired there.
But just as you're totally siding with Dana, Jones flips the script and pens the second half of the story from Chaurisse's point of view. Then we see that while Chaurisse enjoys the privileges that come with legitimacy, she suffers in her own way. She is plagued with adolescent fear and self-doubt, especially regarding body image. Like her mother, she is overweight and plain in appearance. During the two chance encounters in which she and Dana meet, she is struck both times at how beautiful she is. She calls her a 'silver girl' one of those girls whose beauty Chaurisse aspires to but can never reach. Chaurisse's title for Dana along with a Gospel quoted in the story about God watching over the sparrow, becomes the source for the book's title. Like the sparrow, Dana is 'the least of these' because despite her beauty, she is and always will be the second-place child.
As the dialogue hints throughout the narrative, it is inevitable that James' double life implodes and the truth is revealed. I won't put any spoilers in here, but suffice to say that James is not cast in a favorable light in his treatment of either of his daughters when he realizes that his secret is about to be revealed. The confrontation between his two wives is climactic and tension-filled, yet at the same time, it provides you with a sense of relief because you have spent the entire novel knowing that this showdown must take place, but wondering when and how it will happen.
Tayari Jones is a lyrical writer who manages to weave poetic language in with adolescent narrative in a way that is both elegant and realistic. She uses the children to tell the story of the parents and in the hallmark of a good character writer, she creates characters who are believable and none of whom are totally innocent or guilty. While we cheer for Gwen when she tries to fight for her daughter, especially when privileges are taken away to keep her from running into Chaurisse, we then also have to remember that by knowingly getting involved with a married man, she set her daughter up for this type of treatment. While James is an adulterer and a bigamist, he also tries to be a good father to both of his daughters, though he will always fall short in that role as far as Dana is concerned.
Jones strikes a chord with readers as she touches on subjects and emotions that are central to many families with multiple children and not just families with 'secret' children. Feelings of favoritism and jealousy among siblings, the strains of the parent-child relationship as children grow older, complicated marriages, and unrequited love are universal topics that readers can identify with. Silver Sparrow is a beautiful read with a poignant, somewhat sad ending that reminds us that in the real world our choices sometimes come with
hard consequences and that there are not always neat, fairy-tale endings.