Author of White Girl
by Bella Stander
I receive dozens of review copies of new books each month and have no problem putting many of them aside; some forever. But once I started reading Whitegirl (Dial Press) by first-time novelist Kate Manning, I couldn't stop. The story begins with a bang and doesn't let up: Blonde and blue-eyed Charlotte, a gorgeous former model, has just had her throat cut in a brutal attack in her Malibu home. Her husband Milo, a black Olympic skier turned movie star, has been jailed. But Charlotte didn't see her assailant and can't be sure that it was Milo--nor that it wasn't.
Rather than go forward to neatly wrap up the mystery, Manning has Charlotte look back on the events that preceded the fateful moment, from her childhood in a conservative Christian family to an abortive term at college, to a sensational modeling career, to love, marriage, motherhood, heartbreak and disillusion. Charlotte has always accepted herself as nothing more than a pretty face, but her wry and insightful narrative shows that she's far smarter than she gives herself credit for. Even so, she's blind to the signs that so clearly point to her attacker.
At least I think the signs are clear, but Manning, speaking from her home office in Manhattan, steadfastly refuses to say whodunnit. "I didn't want to find out what happened after Charlotte was attacked. I wanted to find out what happened before, to trace an act of violence back to its roots."
A former print journalist and Emmy Award-winning documentary producer for PBS, the Yale grad and mother of three had been "writing fiction and putting it in drawers for years." When she got the idea for Whitegirl, Manning recalls, she "sat up in bed in the middle of the night and said, 'This is a good story.'" She adds, "I've always been interested in issues of race and class. I wanted to write about the racial awakening of a naive white woman in the context of a relationship, and to look at the gap between the way white people experience race and the way black people do. I hope that the book sparks some interesting conversations."
Manning's other aim was to explore "how we are defined by looks and how we define others that way; how we become our labels. Charlotte has little self-esteem because she is only valued for the way she looks." The author points out that "women suffer from feeling that their opinions and ways of seeing the world don't matter and aren't worth hearing, so they are silent," just as Charlotte is, at first by choice and then by horrible necessity.
"Like any fiction writer, the whole story comes from my life and none of it does," says Manning, who, other than being pencil-slim with naturally flaxen hair, has little in common with her protagonist. "What matters to me is that the characters feel true to life; that a reader follows them and feels their feelings and understands their motives and mistakes."
© 2002 Bella Stander