At the heart of Peter Golden’s beautiful new novel, Wherever There Is Light (November 2015), is the agonizing and exquisite power of enduring love. A master of narrative voice, Golden begins near the end of the story of Julian, a white, German-born, Jewish immigrant, and the well-educated granddaughter of a Florida slave with whom he falls in love. The story takes us through the Second World War, Jim Crow, the Jazz Age, Paris existentialism, and the New York art scene with characters rich in dialogue and a sweep of history laden with authentic settings.
Newly arrived in the US, fifteen-year-old Julian Rose finds the only open door to survival, and ultimately prosperity, to be that of Longy Zwillman’s Third Ward Gang in Newark, and while the gangster life is chosen for him, he brings to it a strong sense of loyalty and underlying morality.
Strong-willed Kendall Wakefield leaves her mother’s stifling home in Florida for New York, and discovers her talent for, and acclaim in, photography. Then on to Paris, where she is welcomed into the world of Sartre, de Bouvier, and Picasso, while Julian’s wartime experiences in the OSS take advantage of the skills learned at the right hand of a Newark gangster. Their relationship is a dance, meeting periodically with promise and passion, and then parting. The reader wants to see them together, and Golden dangles the possibility throughout.
While race is an ever-present factor, it is not the primary one keeping these lovers apart. It is Kendall’s desire for personal success that keeps her from committing to Julian.
For Julian, love is an instrument of change. Knowing the wife of a gangster is not for Kendall, Julian brings his persuasion skills to developing real estate, becoming materially wealthy, but still empty without Kendall. Love does not change Kendall. Fiercely determined to make her own way, believing, as her mother taught her that she belongs to no one but herself, she refuses Julian’s offers of help.
The book is framed by the story of Julian in middle-aged, presented with a child by Kendall he did not know existed. Having lost his own wife and daughter, Julian’s son is his only connection to a life he had once sorely desired.
The book ends at the beginning of the Civil Rights era, leaving the reader to wonder how the lives of these two characters might have been different just a few years in the future. This is one of my favorite books of 2015.
Reviewed by Carol Malkin
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