Set around the late 1970s, Fruit of the Lemon is the story of Londonite Faith Jackson, a new university graduate with dreams of making it big in the fashion and textile industry. She is also the daughter of two Jamaican immigrants but that matters little to her. Her identity and her mannerisms are thoroughly British. Faith knows very little about Jamaica, about her family tree, and her history. She finds her parents’ Jamaican ways old-fashioned and slightly out of place.
The first half of Fruit of the Lemon follows Faith’s life, from her new job at the BBC costume department and the eccentric coworkers that come with it to her quirky roommates. It sounds light because it is; this is a very quick and easy read – with Faith echoing a chicklit heroine and the novel feeling sitcom-esque at times. Gradually, little things and offhand comments make Faith question her place as a black woman in London. Small things escalate, as they usually do, causing Faith’s parents to urge her to go to Jamaica to learn about her history. And about herself, by extension.
Someday there will be a novel that successfully renders contemporary neuroses and anxieties in a sympathetic way and we will all rejoice. Fruit of the Lemon is not such a novel, by the way. I think Levy wanted Faith Jackson to be an everygirl but she came across as whiny and annoying (the fault of comic exaggeration, perchance?) I wasn’t happy that the first half of Fruit of the Lemon focused on her life. I couldn’t wait for her to get to Jamaica already so there will be stories of other characters.
The second half is better. No more of Faith’s inane blathering. We are told stories of Faith’s family members up to three and four generations back. All the life stories Faith is told folds together into a mosaic of struggles, hard work, the ups and downs of life – along with how dreary life can be between the ups and downs.
I admire the final message of Fruit of the Lemon. You’re not that special. Faith thinks she was easily going to make it big. But as shown by all the stories of her family members; Life is hard. Life is full of ups and downs. Life is that way whether we are black, white, Jamaican, or Asian. That is inevitable. Being part of a certain group obviously affords privileges, but at the end of the day it is our choice to defeat or be defeated by the daily grind.
This is, of course, a contested point of view/interpretation. The topic of free will and how far hard work takes you vs. how much power society allows you will always be controversial.
While Fruit of the Lemon improved at the end, I could give it no more than three stars at the end. The bulk of the novel is an easy but average read, quite forgettable. Only the ending stuck with me.
A couple of days ago, I read this review of Andrea Levy’s The Long Song by booksbythewindow. Levy seems to have grown and matured as a literary writer. The Long Song denotes a dense, rich novel. Meanwhile, Levy’s most famous novel Small Island is almost universally lauded. Clearly, I chose the wrong novel to start my journey with Andrea Levy.
I don’t recommend Fruit of the Lemon as your first Levy. Small Island and The Long Song seem a safer bet. Thanks to Sally’s review, I’m wondering if I should give Levy another chance.
Ah, if only I didn’t have 7853 unread books to read already!