The stories of Emma, her father Bernard, her brother Bernie, professor Lestor and Meteke form an intricate dance of stories, an impressionistic picture of life through Raboteau’s eyes. The complexity of the picture is too great to be contained by one character, one relationship, or even one perspective—the stories switch from first to third person and back again with ease.
Reviewed by Peter Biello
The Professor’s Daughter
by Emily Raboteau
Henry Holt and Company
Hardcover : 276 pages
Deep, deep, deep into Emily Raboteau’s first novel, The Professor’s Daughter, protagonist Emma reflects: “Language isn’t equipped for the range and complexity of human trouble” (260). Given the complexity of emotion and experience throughout the novel, this may hold true—for the complications in the lives of the Boudreaux’ are never simply solved, if they’re solved at all.
The novel opens with a chapter devoted to the relationship between Emma, daughter of Professor Bernard Boudreaux Jr., and Bernie, Emma’s brother. Emma and Bernie are children of a white mother, Lynn, and their black father, leaving them caught between the two cultures and often victims of racism. The relationship, like most things in the novel, does not expound on racism—instead, Emma and Bernie seem to see themselves as connected on a metaphysical level. Bernie explains to Emma: “I wasn’t finished yet when I came. I came too fast and I left some of me behind. That was you. So you came afterwards to finish me. I’m the he of you and you’re the she of me (26).” Emma, who loves and to a certain extent worships her brother (after Bernie dies, Emma writes a letter to him which is more than just subtly a prayer), buys into Bernie’s special brand of narcissism. The connection is endearing, believable and unique.
What is interesting about The Professor’s Daughter is that the entire novel could have subsisted on the relationship between Emma and Bernie alone. The novel begins to speak about racism through the story of Bernard, Jr., Emma’s father. His story is spread out, often hard to follow, anachronistic at times. A scholar ever since he was small, Bernard suffers at a private school where he is the only black student—that is, until he discovers ways in which he can make the system work in his favor. He becomes a scholar, a professor, and thanks to colleague Professor Lester, very aware of his status as an African-American. His father, Bernard Senior, was an extremely talented baseball player and burned to death by an angry, racist mob. Bernard tries his best to forget this painful history, but, like his club foot, it keeps him from moving forward. In what seems like a bit too much information given too easily, Bernard explains his motivations for marrying a white woman: He didn’t want his children to experience what he felt.
The string tying these two stories together is not necessarily the family connection, but rather the racial tensions each character endures. While Emma feels the strangeness of life on the hyphen, her father feels the weight of his past. Professor Lester is a financially secure African American professor who marries an Ethiopian woman, Meteke, who shares a magical connection to nature. Through these characters we learn to see black not as monochrome but of infinite hues. Perhaps this is Raboteau’s point.
The stories of Emma, her father Bernard, her brother Bernie, professor Lestor and Meteke form an intricate dance of stories, an impressionistic picture of life through Raboteau’s eyes. The complexity of the picture is too great to be contained by one character, one relationship, or even one perspective—the stories switch from first to third person and back again with ease. The reader can see events without any linguistic intrusion, as in “Bernie and Me,” or it can be seen through the haze of what seems almost like beer-goggles, as in “Synesthesia” or “Respiration.” The reader can listen to Emma, or the reader can read her term paper for her Postcolonial African Novel class, which takes the novel into the world of metafiction. Meteke’s encounter with the White Buffalo hunters moves the novel into the realm of magical realism, or perhaps fantasy.
To clear up some of this complexity and lend focus to the narrative, the novel ends where it begins, with the relationship between Bernard, Jr. and his children Emma and Bernie. Although Bernie is dead, having bowed out less-than-gracefully, he is still invoked when his father makes a visit to his grave and “introduces” him to his dead grandfather (in the form of his sculpted head). Emma, too, is called to mind, as Bernard sends her the sculpted head of her grandfather. By connecting the spirit of his father to the spirits of his children, Bernard feels released from the burden of his past. Is it so simply solved? I don’t believe so—but I do see hope. Raboteau provokes the imagination, watches Bernard (who is now without his cane) walk from the post office without his burden. The novel becomes an optimistic look at human strength. It says: “Accept your wisdom.” It says: You can suffer life-long torment and still bounce back. It gives the reader, in spite of the broken family and the scarred lives, a reason to look forward—and perhaps encouragement to “begin.”
About the Reviewer: Peter Biello has earned a BFA in creative writing from the University of Maine at Farmington. He has lived in Massachusetts, Maine and France, and has recently moved to North Carolina to pursue an MFA in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.