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Uncovering family secrets
Emily Raboteau, Pushcart Prize winner and recipient of several prestigious fellowships, lives up to her promise with The Professor's Daughter, her debut novel about a young woman of mixed race whose already turbulent life is turned upside down when a tragic accident puts her much-admired older brother in a coma.
Emma Boudreaux's father, Bernard, is truly a self-made man: a highly regarded black professor whose intelligence and perseverance have led him from the shack in Mississippi in which he was raised to a turreted residence in the university town of Princeton, New Jersey. By marrying a white woman, he hoped to shield his children from the prejudice he has endured throughout his life. But their mixed race causes Emma and her brother Bernie to feel alienated from both black and white culture. They are often subjected to the crude question, "What are you?"
Bernie and Emma are fascinating charactersthe former a charismatic child whose words are so wise that adults treat him as a prophet; the latter a shy, studious young woman whose self-control extends to the ability to produce violent rashes on her body. Emma's own identity is so strongly linked with her brother's that, upon losing him, she flounders to find her own true self.
In exploring Emma's identity, Raboteau turns to the story of Bernard Boudreaux's life. The descriptions of his childhood are particularly moving, vividly depicting his experiences at home with his caretaker, Nan Zan, and his Uncle Luscious (a scant eight months older than Bernard) and as the first and only black student at a Catholic boarding school in New Orleans. She also uncovers the secret of his own father's terrible death, which affects each member of the family in a drastic way.
Raboteau's lyrical yet clear writing style lends itself well to this story, which is often both terrifying and beautiful. Her attention to detail and language creates an extremely compelling atmosphere that will keep readers turning page after page. A book with resonating themes and a powerful storyline, The Professor's Daughter is a strong debut from a talented writer.
Emily Zibart writes from New York City.