After so much contemporary African American fiction that strains to be hip and funny but refuses to look seriously at the problems faced by real black people, first-time novelist Cleage, without succumbing to didacticism, delivers a work of intelligence and integrity. Fiery Ava Johnson's fast life as the owner of an Atlanta beauty parlor comes to a sudden end when she discovers that she is HIV positive. Shunned by her peers in Atlanta, Ava decides to start a new life in more broad-minded San Francisco‘but first she visits her older sister, Joyce, at their childhood home in Idlewild, Mich. A former all-black resort, Idlewild is now just a small rural town crumbling fast under the weight of big city problems. Soon Ava's visit extends into something more permanent as she joins Joyce's efforts to teach teenage mothers. When one of the mothers abandons her baby, Joyce and Ava are granted temporary guardianship. Meanwhile, Ava meets Eddie, a tender-yet-tough introvert who has conquered his own demons and is willing to help Ava tackle hers. Cleage pays serious attention to problems that face young African Americans, including AIDS, teenage motherhood, joblessness, crack, low self-esteem and lack of sex education. What is even more impressive is her ability to work all this into an engaging plot with witty prose that's wonderfully free of clichés. Cleage may be accused of trying to squeeze too much into the novel's last few pages, but it's a tiny flaw, especially since it helps produce a fitting climax to a memorable tale. (Dec.)
In her first novel, Cleage, a playwright and essayist, focuses on an HIV-positive woman who seeks solace and refuge for the summer in her hometown with her widowed sister.