JoeyPinkney.com Book Review
Not Quite What It Seems
By Mari Walker
(St. Martin’s Press)
3 of 5 Stars
Not Quite What It Seems, by Essence Best Selling Author Mari Walker, is a knotted tale of the life of Jadyn Collins that slowly unravels one chapter at a time. Jadyn Collins’ world pulls her in many directions. She struggles to resolve the emotional scars caused by childhood experiences. She is relentless in her pursuit to become a professional dancer. She has found love, yet her life goals do neatly align with her boyfriend’s future plans for both him and Jadyn. On top of all of that, she yearns to find and reunite with her biological father separated from her and her two younger brothers by her mother when she was in her early teens.
Jadyn is the daughter of Samai Collins, the main character of Mari Walker’s debut novel Never As Good As The First Time. A little older and on her own, Jadyn’s character is strong enough to be the center of attention. She is driven by an inner-strength, full of sassiness and smart enough to navigate the varied situations she comes into contact with. Hence, Not Quite What It Seems is by no means a sequel to Never As Good As The First Time, and it’s not really a continuation of Walker’s first book. Just like the relationship between Samai and Jadyn, these two books are definitely related with the first being the foundation of the second. But Not Quite What It Seems has its own identity and can be read by itself.
Jadyn works unremittingly to hone her talent and skill as a dancer from her early teens up through her early twenties. Her life goal is to dance professionally for a larger, national productions. Dance is the one thing that Jadyn does that is stable. Moving to the rhythm of music and precisely expressing choreographed routines takes her away from everything that stresses her in life. Dancing shuts out memories of growing up watching her mother slowly sink into a life of addiction to crack. Dancing stops the searing pain of being touched by a step-father that was supposed to protect her. Dancing takes her emotional, spiritual and physical energy and gives it a direction and focus that enchants anyone who watches her grace.
Jadyn’s boyfriend Taji Hietkikko is half-Black and half-Japanese. Not Quite What It Seems picks up at the time in their relationship where Jadyn is ready to move on, unbeknownst to Taji. Although he is entrenched in his family’s business, poised for future success and financially stable, Taji’s love for Jadyn is empty. He loves her, yet he doesn’t know how to love her. This leaves Jadyn struggling trying to justify making their union matrimonial.
Taji’s Japanese heritage brings an interesting wrinkle into the folds of Not Quite What It Seems. The reader gets a glimpse of the subtle yet bold-faced clash of marriage and relationship concepts between American and Japanese cultures. Jadyn is placed in the middle of compromise and self-respect as she navigates the execution of what Taji’s father thinks is right for Taji and the future of their bloodline. Taji’s father, Hiroshi, doesn’t really want Jadyn in Taji’s life even though Hiroshi has a Black wife. However, if Jadyn is indeed Taji’s chosen love interest, then Hiroshi wants nothing more from Jadyn than to bear and raise Taji’s son.
Walker uses the coexistence of Japanese tradition and non-traditional ways to great effect with Taji and his family. When alone with Jadyn, his character is just as African-American as Jadyn – from the speech patterns to taste in clothed and other sundry items. In the presence of his father and grandfather, Taji falls in-line with family hierarchy. Even the mood of the book changes. This makes for interesting interactions between matriarchal and patriarchal cultural values that clash within the relationship between Jadyn and Taji.
Jadyn was pretty much raised by her mother and looked to her for guidance and protection. As she grew up and became more independent and separated from her crack-addicted mother, she sought to forge her own path in life. Her ability to dance and perform became a focus and career aspiration. This put rearing children and being domesticated on the back-burner as she pushed forward to create her own history. In stark contrast, Taji’s career choice is tied directly to the company his grandfather built and his father grew.
Taji is born into the ie, which is Japanese for family. In this system, individualism and Women’s rights are almost non-existent. Instead, a premium is placed on the continuance of the family and its inheritances with the oldest son being the successor and his wife being domesticated. Taji’s goal in life is dual: to please his father and grandfather and to be the sole provider for his stay-at-home bride. Following Japanese tradition of honoring and respecting the opinion of his elders, Taji puts Jadyn in an uncomfortable position. She must, at times unwillingly, play the submissive role. This is the fuel for both public and private explosions between the two young lovers.
Jadyn must also deal with the ghosts and demons of her youth. A trio of men mentally strain Jadyn indirectly throughout Not Quite What It Seems. Her step-father Ian’ molesting ways and continual presence keeps her revisiting some of the most painful moments in her life. Quinn, a murderous junkie/dealer marked her psyche with his attempt on her life and innocence. Finally, there is Charles William Ivery, Jadyn’s biological father who was pushed out of Jadyn’s life by her mother. His absence has always been a sore spot for Jadyn, one that has in some senses arrested her development in terms of closure to her childhood.
Jadyn takes her life into her own hands and decides to leave Taji after she links him to her not getting the role of her life with a dance troupe she rose through the call backs to the final cut. Jaded by what she understood to be an underhanded move by Taji to stifle her creative endeavors, Jadyn uses the excursion to find her biological father. The novel totally changes pace, plot and personality when she leaves Ohio for Florida. The book really begins to live up to its namesake – not quite what it seemed.
Things begin to unravel during the last fifth of the novel. I didn’t think that the new drama Jadyn stumbled upon in Florida tied in well with the life she left behind in Ohio. In Florida, Jadyn stays with her great-uncle BruhJay and cousin Flash, BruhJay’s grandson, and they show her Southern Hospitality like only family can in the small town of Palm City, FL.
Because of the ending, Not Quite What It Seems came off feeling more like two books jammed together as one. As a reader, I enjoyed the unfolding mystery of the connection between Julian, the man that she met on the flight into Florida, Jadyn’s cousin Flash and Steele Money – a seemingly nobody, club promoter in the middle of nowhere. Julian slowly becomes a love interest, Flash becomes overly protective and Steele Money by no means hides his anamosity for Jadyn’s presence in Palm City. By the time the dust settles in Florida, Jadyn’s time there was a trip but not to Disney World…
Overall, I have mixed feelings about Not Quite What It Seems. I enjoyed what I considered the tale of two novels in, just not within the confines of the same book cover.