Summary and book reviews of October Suite by Maxine Clair

October Suite

A Novel

By Maxine Clair

October Suite

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Book Summary

"The air cools to crisp, carries sound farther. Last pears ripen and fall, ferment on the ground; the aroma of their wine mixes with the pungency of leaf smoke from nowhere and everywhere. At nightfall, the wing-song shrill of crickets announces that this season has a natural pathos to it, the brief and flaming brilliance of everything at the climax of life moving toward death.
"October Brown had named herself for all of that."

So begins this beautifully written coming-of-age story about a young woman who struggles to overcome her family's frightening legacy and keep her own child from similar emotional harm.

It is 1950 and October Brown is a twenty-three-year-old first-year teacher thanking her lucky stars that she found a room in the best boardinghouse for Negro women teachers in Wyandotte County, Kansas. October falls in love with an unhappily married handyman, James Wilson, but when she becomes pregnant, James deserts her. Stunned, and believing that James will eventually come back to her, October decides to have the baby. But he doesn't come back. As her reputation suffers, and with her job in jeopardy, she spends her days in self-deception and denial. Her best friend, Cora, contacts October's family: her older sister, Vergie, and her aunts Frances and Maude, who raised the sisters after their mother was killed by their father.

October goes back to her family in Ohio and gives birth to her son. Numb, she gives the child--David--to Vergie and her husband to raise as their own, then returns to Kansas City to rebuild her life. But something is missing--and, apparently too late, October realizes what she has done.

What follows is the heartrending account of October's efforts to reclaim her dignity, her profession, and her son, efforts that lead her into a bitter struggle with her sister and a confrontation with her parents' violent past. The Midwest, the flourishing of modern jazz, and the culture of segregation form a compelling historical backdrop for this timeless and universal tale of one person's battle to understand and master her own desires, and to embrace the responsibilities and promise of mature adulthood. October Suite plays a beautiful, haunting melody, turning everyday life into exceptional art.

CHAPTER 1

In the Midwest, October comes in when the pale coverlet of sky lifts away, exposing an eternity of deep and certain blue. The sun no longer stares, merely glances and makes long shadows much like the uneven fading of green from trees just before the lesser pigments fire-light the whole outdoors. The air cools to crisp, carries sound farther. Last pears ripen and fall, ferment on the ground; the aroma of their wine mixes with the pungency of leaf smoke from nowhere and everywhere. At nightfall, the wing-song shrill of crickets announces that this season has a natural pathos to it, the brief and flaming brilliance of everything at the climax of life moving toward death.

October Brown had named herself for all of that. Unwittingly at first. When she began occasionally calling herself October, she was only ten years old. Others said it was ridiculous, said she was nobody trying to be somebody. But she made convincing noises about given names, how you could give one to ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Maxine Clair's October Suite. We hope they will provide new insights and ways of looking at this compelling, beautifully written novel.


FOR DISCUSSION

  1. October legally changes her name when she is seventeen. She views her name change as a way of separating herself from her father and bringing herself closer to her mother. Do you think that names have as much significance as October attributes to them? Should October have heeded Aunt Frances's wishes and not changed her name?

  2. The spirit of Carrie Cooper Brown--October and Vergie's dead mother--hovers over the novel, occasionally speaking directly to the reader, and ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
Author Blurb Elizabeth Strout
Told in a melody all its own, this story touches many lovely and unexpected notes. October Brown chooses to reinvent herself, only to inadvertently discover herself, and the final chord of accepting herself (and others) reverberates poignantly.

Author Blurb Marita Golden
October Brown is a heroine who will break and mend your heart. Maxine Clair has written a beautifully imagined novel that pulses with all the colors and sounds of the lives we live.

Author Blurb Terry McMillan
Strong, melodic, and honest..[Clair's] characters are lush and real.. We need stories like these to replenish us.

Kirkus Reviews

Hyped-up prose doesn't make the sisters' final reconciliation as moving as the author clearly intends, and tentative closure with the father they thought was dead is achieved through an outrageous coincidence only Dickens could have pulled off..... the tale's overly studied quality suggests that this material has been worked over one too many times.

Publishers Weekly

This first novel by the author of 1994's admired story collection Rattlebone tells a simple story in a sweetly straightforward, lyrical style that builds a surprising amount of power as it moves quietly along.

Booklist - Carrie Bissey

October's story is told with a quiet drama, enriched by period details and well-developed characters who act with realistic compassion and cruelty. An absorbing look at a woman coming to terms with her past and shaping a better future.

Library Journal

As winner of both the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Award and the Literary Award for Fiction from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association for her collection Rattlebone, Clair brings a big reputation to this first novel.

San Francisco Chronicle

Lovely, lyrical and full of charm..Clair's first work of fiction is as much a record of a gentler era as it is a sensitive and wise coming-of-age story.

New York Times Book Review

Extraordinary..Each skillful plot twist, each new wonderful character has the effect of a sip of literary love potion.

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