WHAT YOU OWE ME
by Bebe Moore Campbell

(Putnam, 2001)

Reviewed by Sue Feder

Gilda and Hosanna. One a Jewish Holocaust survivor, the other an American black. They meet as hotel maids in Los Angeles shortly after the war. Gilda brings with her a formula for a skin moisturizer. Hosanna brings a burning ambition to succeed, a natural ability for selling, and wide connections in the black community. They become friends and business partners, sisters under the skin. They are poised for success until the unthinkable happens -- Gilda disappears, and the business funds with her.

A taut, emotionally resonating beginning dissolves to the next generation. 

Gilda has become an immensely successful cosmetics magnate. Her son Daniel itches to assume the reins of the company, while daughter Rachel seems a lost soul. Hosanna has been dead many years. Her older daughter Vonette is a successful keeper of the home, with a loving husband and children. Younger daughter Matriece has inherited her mother's ambition, business sense, and desire for revenge. 

hese characters alone would create a complex, textured tale, but the number of subplots has barely begun. There's:
    - Mooney, the black businessman who helped Gilda and Hosanna at the start, became Hosanna's lover and Matriece's godfather, and now has the power to destroy Gilda;
    - Kent, Gilda's long-time employee, with a sick wife, a bad gambling habit, a young child by his mistress, and a devastating secret;
    - Blair, Matriece's friend and Rachel's confident, trapped in a bad marriage with a troubled son;
    - Asia, a deeply depressed young black singer, for whom Matriece used to babysit, and with whom Matriece would like to contract as her company's spokesmodel;
    - Sam, Asia's biggest fan, and rapidly becoming Matriece's as well;
    - Tavares, Vonette's youngest and most talented child, for whom Matriece has great aspirations. 

Each of these characters has relationships with the others, and to still others not yet mentioned. The threads are easy to follow, if not to relate, and most of the stories are relatively interesting. Yet as a whole the novel collapses under its own weight, and is not helped by the fact that most of these characters are not very sympathetic, a direct result of the novel's overarching theme, neatly summed up in the title. For what drives almost everyone is a sense of entitlement: to money, power, prestige, land, love, in various combinations. It is probably no coincidence that the only two truly likeable characters are also the two who aren't driven by a need for financial or emotional reparations. A secondary and related theme is the devastating emotional toll that an absentee father can take on a family. 

After the brilliant extended opening sequence, the characters all tend to ring a bit hollow, and conversations sometime sound like campaign speeches. Part of that brilliance lies in the tight emotional focus on Gilda and Hosanna, who are basically two halves of a whole. The sheer numbers of characters and stories thereafter diffuse the focus for author and reader alike, and dilute rooting interest. 

It is the third theme -- reconciliation -- that will most likely divide readers into two camps, however. After hundreds of pages of bitter and growing animosities, instant karma suddenly overwhelms all characters simultaneously, as they all find the will and strength to begin to forgive each other. One group -- those of a more romantic bent -- will be satisfied with the hopeful note on which the book ends. Readers of a more cynical bent are likely to find insufficient grounds on which to believe in these sudden conversions. 

Count me among the cynics.