Halsey Street, by Naima Coster, takes on a whole lot of life in a single book. Mother-daughter issues set the tone for Halsey Street, a clear angry discord thrumming throughout the entire book, which then wraps itself up in main character Penelope Grand’s life of sexuality, gentrification, aging parents, failed dreams and a father’s love.
Penelope Grand, is a young, half Black-half Dominican native New Yorker with a chip on her shoulder. After a lifetime of hero-worshiping her Black father and engaging in a negative and disappointing relationship with her Dominican mother, Penelope quits art school and rambles around Pittsburgh working as a bar tender and enjoying casual sexual encounters with bar patrons. When Penelope returns to Brooklyn to care for her ailing father, her home turf is in the process of being gentrified, her father’s record store replaced with health foods, old haunts replaced with sushi restaurants. Back home, Penelope is forced to face the ugly truth of her situation. Her father’s record store has shuttered and been replaced by a health food store, her mother has abandoned her family and the Brooklyn home, and she has quit art school and is substitute teaching, no friends, no lovers, no future.
While Coster is a fine writer who gave herself plenty of material to work with, Halsey Street is not a book I’d recommend to friends. Penelope is an angry, insecure, a-hole and she’s difficult to read. Her actions and judgement are questionable at best, downright awful at other times. She treats every other character in the book like crap and then validates her behavior with stunningly ridiculous justifications. Penelope is boring in her anger and negative responses to everything.
The underlying thread of gentrification never seems to build into anything meaningful or poignant. Aside from Penelope’s anger at her white landlords and the casual mention of a few new restaurants, gentrification isn’t really addressed head on in this book. Penelope seemingly hates her hometown, so the anger, fear, resentment and other normal emotions experienced during gentrification aren’t really addressed here. In fact, Penelope’s anger and hate towards everything takes away a lot of the power her anger and hate could have had if it had been better directed.
In an odd twist, every other character is quite well developed. I wish Coster would have focused more on Penelope’s parents, Ralph and Mirella, and how an orphaned black boy grew up to become a successful business owner married to a significantly younger and beautiful red-headed Dominican. Both Ralph and Mirella were interesting and complicated and their relationship left a lot to be explored. Ralph seemingly loved Mirella with his whole being. Mirella, on the other hand, spent her days avoiding her family and eventually bailing to another country. Halsey Street would have been more enjoyable if we’d followed them instead of their cranky daughter.
All in all, 3 stars. Great writing. Main character sucks. The fantastic supporting characters make the read worthwhile.
Until next time, happy reading and cheers!