Title: "Ugly Ways"
Author: Tina McElroy Ansa
Publisher: Harcourt Brace & Co.
Length, price: 277 pages, $19.95 Mom just won't get off the Lovejoy sisters' backs. Even though she's dead.
That's the gist of "Ugly Ways," Tina McElroy Ansa's vivid and wise second novel (after "Baby of the Family"). She sustains the story's narrow focus with humor and heartfelt empathy for these three women, almost literally haunted by their "Mudear."
If it hadn't been for the "change" in Mudear, when she suddenly stopped fulfilling every facet of her role as a traditional mother, the sisters might never have been so close to each other. While their father supported them financially, the girls had to support themselves emotionally. So when they come together in their hometown to bury the woman who left them with both strength and scars, their hearts swing open and the family foibles get a good airing.
Betty, who is almost a surrogate mother to her younger siblings, is a successful owner of two hair salons but has constantly scrutinized herself to see if she is as "big-boned" as Mudear says. Emily consults her psychic and her analyst with alarming regularity. Annie Ruth, an anchorwoman, is bothered more than anything by a burgeoning plague of cats that only she can see.
None has a successful long-term relationship with a man, maybe because Mudear always said, "A man don't give a damn about you."
Mudear was an extraordinary woman, they all agree. They even hold her in some awe, for Mudear didn't do housework, didn't cook for her family, and rarely spoke to them unless she wanted to get their reaction to something she'd noticed in a magazine or during her marathons of watching television. She slept through much of the day and worked miracles in her garden at night.
But Mudear's method of building character in her daughters left them grasping for guidance. As Ms. Ansa's story progresses, the sisters sweep their feelings further for the land mines their mother left behind, and Mudear seems less of a champion of individuality than a cold and hurtful manipulator. The girls inherit her strength and her beauty, but not her leading characteristic, the trait theyresent more than anything -- selfishness.
Even their friends in the black community, close-knit within the confines of a Southern town, regarded the family warily after Mudear's self-imposed exile. As a result, the girls grew even more isolated.
Whenever someone outside the family tried to cultivate the girls' zest for books and life, "Mudear talked about them so badly, going into their family history and failed romances and business endeavors, that the girls eventually shied away from the teachers just to shield them from Mudear."
Mudear has her own version of events, which she shares with us as she lies in her coffin:
"Those ungrateful, trifling women! Hell, I coulda just walked out and left them orphan girls. But no, I stayed so they could have the benefits of a mama. . . . God! Those girls got ugly ways about 'em sometimes."
The girls had to learn to love her emotional blackmail:
"Some respect was due her, Mudear felt, for not throwing herself down a flight of steps when she was pregnant with each one of them."
But the sisters slowly discover that just because Mudear marched to a different drummer, she didn't have the right to lead her perverse band stomping over her daughters' lives.
Ms. Ansa's strength -- in fact, her whole story -- lies in character, as each person in the family adds another dimension to the overwhelming personality of Mudear. The novel is also a tale of single, modern women that brings to mind Terry McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale." But this satisfying story is more internal, exploring the unfathomed depths of sisterly love and motherly influence.
Ms. Kridler is a copy editor on the National Desk of The Sun.