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For Windsor this predicament is no laughing matter. Determined to get to the bottom of it, she embarks on a journey into her own rich past: to her Motown childhood, where the Temptations danced across the stage and love came disguised as a sharply dressed gangster; to Harvard, where she endured the humiliation of being an unwed black teen mother; to St. Petersburg, where the verses of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, great-grandson of an African slave, moved through her head as she made love to her own white Russian. The urge to protect her son has been Windsor's only goal, but as she draws ever closer to the secret that has cast a shadow over her life, the identity of her son's father, she discovers that the half-lies she has fed her boy don't add up to the beauty of the truth.
Balancing sharp-witted humor with profundity, sexiness with psychological depth, this is an exhilarating ride straight through the racially divided heart of contemporary America, which also probes the universal question of what it means to be a good mother. Pushkin and the Queen of Spades is a provocative, enormously entertaining novel that will change the landscape of literary fiction.
The tight grip of a mother's love
Windsor Armstrong, the protagonist of Alice Randall's stellar sophomore novel Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, has a problem. Her son, star football player Pushkin X, is marrying a Russian lap dancer, and it's driving her crazy. The craziness springs from the fact that Windsor, a professor of Afro-Russian studies with a near fetish for the great poet after whom her son is named, is a control freak who regards her future daughter-in-law with a blunt racism.
The reader is initially not inclined to like Windsor very much. But Randall, the gifted author of the controversial novel The Wind Done Gone, eventually makes us care for the uptight, cerebral and self-obsessed professor. Certainly Windsor has a reason to be uptight; she was the child of a cold and narcissistic mother and a father whose love was so overwhelming that when he finally split with his wife he made Windsor feel guilty for not staying with himno matter that she was all of 10 years old and had no say in custody matters.
Windsor's tumultuous extended family is made up of folks of mixed race and mixed motives. Pushkin X is the product of a rape that occurred just before Windsor arrived at Harvard. Undaunted, she not only decided to keep the baby, but also went on to get her degree, though it meant having to leave her son behind in Detroit with a disreputable caretaker. Her gnawing guilt also colors her attitude toward Pushkin X, but Windsor's love for her son is as all-encompassing as her father's was for her. Randall infuses the book with the aching sadness of a mother who, having struggled and achieved a certain level of success, must find a way to allow her son to live his own life.
In Windsor Armstrong, Randall has created an unusual, exasperating but ultimately sympathetic heroine. As Windsor says of herself, "There are stories within me and vanishings about me. Who will I show you? Who do you really need to see?" Pushkin and the Queen of Spades is a thought-provoking work from a writer with a unique view of the world.