Unconventional and ambitious, New People by Danzy Senna is exceptionally written, though I came away from it feeling very underwhelmed. I love a short book as much as the next reader, and I usually don’t face any issues regarding length, but in this case, New People needed to be longer. Its plot felt incomplete, its ending felt rushed, and its characters were too one-dimensional. I found myself loving bits and pieces, especially Senna’s words regarding race and self-identity, but overall I was disappointed.
From the back cover:
As the twentieth century draws to a close, Maria is at the start of a life she never thought possible. She and Khalil, her college sweetheart, are planning their wedding. They are the perfect couple, “King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom.” They live together in a black bohemian enclave in Brooklyn, where Khalil is riding the wave of the first dot-com boom and Maria is plugging away at her dissertation, on the Jonestown massacre. They’ve even landed a starring role in a documentary about “new people” like them, who are blurring the old boundaries as a brave new era dawns. Everything Maria knows she could want lies before her- yet she can’t stop daydreaming about another man, a poet she barely knows. As fantasy escalates to fixation, it dredges up secrets from the past and threatens to unravel not only Maria’s perfect new life but her very persona. Heartbreaking and darkly comic, New People is bold and unfettered page-turner that challenged our every assumption about how we define one another, and ourselves.
“In the half light, Maria examines her hand, the diamond and sapphire ring. It looks like somebody else’s hand, a woman she would like to become someday. A fiancée. The hand of a special somebody. The hand of an emergency contact on an official form. The ring is evidence that she is part of this tribe- herself, Khalil, Lisa, their friends- a tangle of mud-colored New People who have come to carry the nation- blood-soaked, guilty of everything of which it has been accused- into the future.”
-Danzy Senna, New People
New People focuses on the topic of race, specifically race’s relationship to identity. As a “mulatto,” Maria feels stuck between two worlds, and the race she chooses to portray is a huge part of the person she is. Her identity confusion is also affected by her adoptive mother Gloria, her fiancé Khalil, and Khalil’s sister Lisa; Maria’s rapidly-approaching wedding sets her confusion into high gear as she second-guesses marriage and looks to a local poet in an attempt to figure out her life. But Maria develops an overwhelmingly unhealthy obsession with the poet- sneaking into his apartment, peeing in his toilet, using his comb and toothbrush. She fantasizes about the life she could lead with the poet, a life she “can’t” have due to her devotion to Khalil. Maria’s story is the most extreme case of cold feet you’ll ever encounter, and the last few pages had me worried for her sanity.
New People was a bit of a letdown; though I was concerned for Maria’s mental health, I never felt truly invested in her. I really enjoyed Senna’s writing style, but I felt the story was missing something; its conclusion felt incomplete. Senna’s one-dimensional characters were not fully fleshed-out, and the plot felt dry and stagnant. Had I felt more attached to Maria, I may have liked New People more than I did, but unfortunately I just didn’t agree with this one.
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