Sag Harbor: A Review

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I fell in love with Colson Whitehead with John Henry Days and then I fell even MORE in love with him when I followed him on twitter. He was the first author I had ever experienced in that real way and it was fascinating to see his little thoughts, his little writing procrastinations, and just that he existed beyond a by-line. I basically watched him via social media write Sag Harbor, and it has taken me this long to get to it. Shame.

This week I only have 1 reviewer because I messed up the reading list a little. (There are a lot of Sarahs who read this blog!) So I’ll have more of a voice in this review this time around. But let’s meet my partner in book review crime!

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This is Melinda! And she writes at Palindrome at Home. She lives in San Francisco and has the kind of San Francisco set up that I feel only exists when you’re really lucky with apartment hunting in the city OR are from a TV show and live in pretend SF land. Basically, I love oogling her blog for design ideas and cat photos and fun cooking ideas. I’m so happy she was up for participating in the reading list!

Melinda: I saw my name next to Sag Harbor and the corners of my lips turned slightly downwards. I was hoping for Barbara Kingsolver, as though I’m incapable of reading her on my own and relying on an internet book club to assign it to me. Sag Harbor sounded like a romance novel to me. Fine, I thought. I was going on vacation and Lauren did introduce me to Outlander. If it was going to be a romance novel, at least it was coming Lauren approved. I would just have to sacrifice for the good of the whole community. 

Me: Ha!!! This cracks me up!! I love hearing the little secret workings of everyone’s thought process in regards to first impressions. With most books I read and especially with books from the blog reading list, once I put them on the list (and after a brief read through of the synopsis) I don’t look at the back of the books again. So I knew that this was about the upper, upper-middle class African-American experience but that’s about it. I was generally interested in reading about a culture incredibly different from my own (being white, west coast, solidly middle class).

Melinda: For the first page and then the second, this romance novel was starting off young I thought. Kids on their way to Long Island – sandy haired, polo wearing, prep school attending kids bound to be lobster embroidered, short wearing douches – complaining about the finer points of the drive that wasn’t lost on me. Then the story changed. These weren’t sandy haired, privileged white kids. And this was not a romance novel. Both things I would have realized if I had seen the cover of the book, which the wonders of the Kindle and one touch ordering had hidden from me.

Sag Harbor is the coming of age story as told by a young black man summering in Long Island. My preconceptions about what I thought I knew about Long Island and what I thought I knew about black America were thoroughly tested as I found myself relating to the self-conscious and awkward narrator. He documents the first unsupervised summer, outside the watchful eyes of parents, sometimes humorously and always thoughtfully. Braces, ice cream, bicycles, concerts and first kisses – it was so familiar and yet different. The challenge for me was to notice the similarities and differences, then honestly face my prejudices (both racial and socio-economic).

Me: Yes, it is a little Huxtables-esque as far as money and a certain privilege is concerned within the black community, but an interesting point that continued to be made or at least touched upon in the book was how segregated it still is, even for wealthy people, in the world of old money/east coast cultures. In so many ways it was ultra beyond my world and at times it was a stretch for me to wrap my head around the set up. It’s an incredibly real and down to earth book, but it felt like I was eavesdropping, as a white girl, into a very protected part of wealthy black culture.

It’s interesting, even talking about race (writing about race) makes me twitch. I keep asking Kamel, “Does this sound ignorant? Is saying this racist?” I think that’s an example of a very fucked up race-culture.

Melinda: [In reference to any recurring themes in the book.] Relationships with family, peers and the opposite sex are at the heart of the story. As the narrator builds them and sees them disintegrating at varying speeds and momentum, the reader can relate to the universal human reactions of fear, thrill, and heartache that accompany these basic interactions. These themes of relationship glue the narrative together and draw the reader in so that the other themes (which at times are more tense) take a backseat to the humanity of the story.

Me: The pain of growing up is a universal truth it seems. The awkwardness, the self-hate, the social hierarchy of teen boys and girls. Ugh, it’s awful. With just those things alone I felt a constant undercurrent of tension and humor all at once through the novel. It was almost unsettling at times.

Melinda: Sag Harbor didn’t resolve in a neat bow of a story. There’s a storyline around his parents that lacks resolution and unless you look up the author’s biography, you don’t really know what happens to the narrator. However, these small annoyances are more my nosiness and less faults of the story.

Me: The unresolved-ness somehow really made sense to me while reading because it’s like how it is when you’re in junior high, early high school. Things come and go, some moments feel giant while others just kind of drift away. Parents are a huge influence, they have so much control over so much until one day you are on your own and they don’t. So, I definitely thing this book succeeded in telling a pretty fantastic coming of age story from a unique voice that, honestly, is probably not getting enough play in the arts world or the media world. I did sort of skim the exposition about music and such during the time, if I’m being honest. Some parts I just didn’t care about or am too young to full grasp.

Melinda: Besides the first few pages where I was surprised about everything save for the setting, there weren’t any major surprises or turns in the book. Teenage hijinks actually ended the way they did in your youth, and you just wish you had a book deal to talk about them. And you wish you had the finesse and comedic timing to tell them as well as Colson Whitehead.

Me: I was surprised at how funny it was. I actually giggled out loud at times, and that is hard for me to do. I’m a book-crier, but getting me to laugh (even while watching stand up) can be a challenge!

Melinda:  Of particular interest to people who summered in Long Island and see themselves in the scenes of the book, Sag Harbor also appeals to those of us who may have only visited once or twice. I spent a few summers cleaning at a hotel in Ocean City, NJ and frequently relayed his summer stories to my equivalent – beach traffic, sneaking out, hoping to meet dates and all. Of course, anyone interested in a nuanced discussion of race in America and thinking about where race and socio-economic issues collide would find Sag Harbor a stimulating read as told from the perspective of an African American teenage male. Oh, and anyone who’s ever been a teenager regardless of your color and beach goings in the summer. Yes, they might enjoy it too.

Me: I wish I had a lit class to discuss this in because I’m totally sure I’m missing some of the amazing cultural commentary nuance, but in general it was really good. A solid read that made me think. If you’re in the mood for a coming of age, I would definitely recommend. It isn’t the typical story. I’m really glad I finally read it.

Has anyone else read this one? I would love to hear more perspectives! I feel like I read this in a vacuum, giggling to myself on lunch breaks at work, huddled over a table in the cafe. Have you read anything by Colson Whitehead? I’m curious how well known he is outside of my tiny bubble world.

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