At first glance, The Better Half by Alli Frank and Asha Youmans seems like the perfect beach read. There’s an eye-catching bright cover, and the first few chapters are filled with the two main characters – Nina and Marisol – talking about clothes, shoes, salons, men, and sex. Diving in further, The Better Half tackles more serious topics. Frank and Youmans have written a fun novel but one with substance, hitting on issues that remain front and center in our nation’s culture wars.
Co-authors Frank and Youmans, “literary soulmates,” worked together in education in Seattle and have written other novels about “race, religion, culture, class, privilege, parenting, and education.” Nina Morgan Clarke and Marisol Santiago met while undergraduates in New York. After attending Columbia Teachers College, Nina taught at the Spence School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Nina and Marisol, who was raised by her Mexican parents in Queens, were restless and that led to their cross country move to southern California. Nina is now the first female head – actually the first Black female head – of the tony Royal-Hawkins School in Pasadena, while Marisol runs her own beauty business.
Nina’s first marriage to Graham produced a daughter, Xandra, but ended in divorce. Having nabbed a prestigious position at Royal-Hawkins, Nina plans to concentrate on her career. On a girls’ weekend in Santa Barbra, Nina meets Leo, a white corporate lawyer and, much to her surprise, they begin an affair. Since Leo’s work often takes him to the Far East, they spend some time on Zoom. But they spend enough time together for Nina to get pregnant – something that definitely was not on her agenda.
Graham envisioned a traditional marriage, like the one his parents had and Nina often was a single mother, working on her career while raising Xandra, who is now at Pemberley, a boarding school in New York. Nina, 43, is not sure she wants to become a mother again, even though Leo is thrilled at the prospect of becoming a father and assures her he will help raise the baby. They travel to Omaha so that Nina can meet Leo’s parents, who are also enthusiastic about welcoming a grandchild.
Complications pile up. After half a year at Royal-Hawkins, Nina is receiving rave reviews from Winn Hawkins, descendant of the school’s founder and head of the school’s board. But in the Omaha airport, Nina bumps into Courtney Dunn, a new board member. As a mother at the school, Courtney has already been a thorn in Nina’s side. Now that she’s on the board, she will wield more power and makes no bones about the fact that Nina’s pregnancy, which will mean a maternity leave, will create problems for the school’s faculty and the students. And she refuses to promise not to tell anyone else at the school about the pregnancy until Nina has the chance to break the news herself.
There’s trouble brewing on the home front, too. Xandra, home for Christmas vacation, auditioned for a part in the school’s play and was upset that all the leads went to the white students. Dave Petrov, Pemberley’s theater department chair, found Xandra’s behavior, which included constantly showing up late for rehearsals and not memorizing lines, unacceptable and sent a written letter to Nina demanding that Xandra apologize and only return to the drama department if she can change her attitude. Nina and her father, Fitzroy, are on the same page, telling Xandra she needs to apologize. Xandra, however, refuses, pointing out that Petrov’s behavior and statements are racist. “He said he owns me,” she tells her mother and grandfather. “Owns me, owns me, like a slave….Couldn’t believe a teacher at Pemberley would say something like that to a Black student.”
The discussion focuses on the generational differences that can turn up in Black families. Fitzroy and Nina feel they have had the brunt of discrimination and that Xandra is now benefitting from that changed environment. “Xandra,” Fitzroy tells her, “you got the brittlest backbone of the three of us. One injury to your resolve, one misunderstood sentence spoken from your teacher, and you fall apart. Make sure you hear me now. Your generation are the lucky ones. You have never been the only Black anything or received undeserved treatment at school solely based on the color of your skin.”
When Xandra says that her mother had it “easy” at Spence and then at Wellesley, Fitzroy points out that Nina has lived her whole life “being the lone polka dot in a sea of white.” Xandra remains unconvinced. Nina, however, is having her own conflicts with her Black identity, worried that Leo underestimates what it means to raise a Black child. Will he want to move to Omaha, a city where she and their child will be in the minority? When he proposes, she refuses and their relationship takes a hit. Marisol can’t understand why Nina isn’t marrying Leo ASAP. Nina, however, has to do things her own way, on her own timetable. But will the baby wait for her to sort out her feelings?
The Better Half is smart, thought-provoking, and fun. Serious topics are handled with skill, taking us inside the lives of fictional characters dealing with all too real challenges. A great choice for a book club that would spark lively discussions.
The Better Half
Alli Frank and Asha Youmans
Top photo: Asha Youmans and Alli Frank
Credit: J. Garner Photography