Monday, July 25, 2011

Minding Ben by Victoria Brown — 352 pgs

Minding BenWhen Grace Caton boards a plane heading to New York from Trinidad, she’s only sixteen years old. Promised a home with a distant cousin in America, Grace is both excited and scared as she makes her way abroad. But when Grace arrives, she finds that she’s been stranded with no one to retrieve her from the airport and nowhere to live. Soon Grace is living with the mercurial Sylvia and her patchwork family. Though Grace isn’t exactly freeloading at Sylvia’s, her luck in the job department has been pretty meager. As Grace searches for the perfect position, she is also considering marrying Sylvia’s brother Bo for a green card. Just when she thinks she’ll never get a job, a call comes for her regarding a nanny position. But Miriam, the woman offering the job, wants to hire Grace to be her maid, nanny and helper, all for ridiculously low salary. What is Grace to do with no other options on the horizon? With a sinking heart, she agrees to the job, and her life is never the same. Moving between the circles of Island immigrant nannies, her party-loving friends, and her mish-mash family at Sylvia’s, Grace discovers that life in New York isn’t as easy as she once imagined it would be, but despite the hardship and disadvantages she faces, she will not turn tail and run back home. At times funny, at times tragic, this is the tale of a young girl left on her own to manage life in the big city, and of the people she meets who will sometimes help and sometimes hinder her.

This was one of those books that was really hard to put down. From the very beginning, I was caught up in Grace’s unusual tale. She had a great head on her shoulders and was very responsible, which is really unusual for a sixteen year old girl. Grace is living in an untenable situation at Sylvia’s because the family lives a very low income and restricted life. Grace’s presence is a godsend for Sylvia, who uses Grace’s services in minding her small children in exchange for room and board. But Sylvia is not always the best roommate, and the five residents are living in a two room apartment that may or may not be hazardous for their health. Sylvia can also be demanding and uppity, which is one of the reasons Grace must find herself another situation soon. But her lack of a green card is something that hinders her time and time again.

When Grace finally lands a job with Miriam Bruckner, she knows she’s being taken advantage of but has no better option. Miriam is not only overly demanding but can be racist at times, and her inappropriate comments sometimes went over Grace’s head. Not so with me. When I read how Miriam would exploit Grace and then treat her with racist contempt, my blood would boil. I felt a little angry with Grace for standing by and taking all this ridiculous abuse, but time and time again, I realized she had no other options available to her. There were also some subtle sexual tension between Miriam’s husband and Grace, which did not go unnoticed by Miriam. Grace’s only respite from this horrible family was her connection to the other nannies in the building. But even there, there were rivalries and factions that Grace was loathe to get caught up in. There was a lot of internal and external conflict in this book, and it was all very realistic and emotionally charged. In spite of Grace’s innocence, there was a lot of messiness to her life and the lives of those around her, and in her struggle for freedom and independence she began to grow both in wisdom and experience.

The third aspect of this book had to do with Grace’s ties to her island acquaintances living in New York, and these, I think, were my favorite sections. The interactions between Grace and her friends were sometimes portrayed in heavy patios dialect, and having had a few friends from the small islands many years ago, the patios brought back a lot of memories. Grace’s friendship with Kathy, another girl who immigrated from her village to New York, was full of gentle teasing and genuine affection. Often it was Kathy who saw Grace through her toughest times, and the two girls did a lot of leaning on one another over the course of the story. There was even a love component in this story in the form of another islander named Brent. As Grace begins to realize her own worth and to navigate her own struggles, her friends, including an American from her building, become the heart of her support system. I had a very affable reaction to her growing social ties and their effects as the book wound its way forward.

I really enjoyed Minding Ben for a lot of reasons, primairly because of the interplay between the dramatic tension and the character creation of the story. Brown does an exceptional job imbuing her story with all the elements that a reader will find engrossing and takes the narrative through many believable twists and turns that kept me hungering for more. It was a really diverting read, and certain sections had a deliciously scandalous feel to them. This book would be a perfect beach read, and I can’t imagine anyone not falling for the unapologetic and winsome Grace. A very intriguing read, and one that I won’t soon forget. Highly recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

23 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I actually started this but couldn't get into it, and put it back down! I'm glad you liked it!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Funny that you and Jill had such opposite reactions. It has everything to do with your mindset at the time though. Personally, I think the plot itself wouldn't attract me to the book, but if something is really well-written, anything with work.

Kathy said...

This is a review that really makes me want to read this one, thanks!

nomadreader said...

I'm so glad you loved this one! For some reason, I wrote it off as a chick lit nanny style tale (because of the cover?), but your description and review make me really want to read it. I'll have to get this one from the library!

Audra said...

This sounds great! (Heartbreaking, too, of course.) I'm glad you reviewed it or I might not have noticed it.

bermudaonion said...

I'm fascinated with immigrant stories so I think I would like this one.

Aths said...

I don't know if I've ever heard of this one, but it sounds fabulous! I'm pretty fascinated with immigrant issues, mainly because I grew up away from home and am forever faced with identity issues and culture conflicts. This is one that I would love to read.

Marie said...

Sounds like it could be a good one. I like that it's well-written- craft is everything! I read a similar sounding book recently, LUCY, by Jamaica Kincaid, and this book that you've read sounds like a lighter, more enjoyable version! :-) I wish I'd read your book instead!

Jenners said...

I can't imagine having a life like Grace ... it sounds overwhelming and difficult! I like that she manages ... and even seems to thrive.

By the way, I'm catching up with the blog posts you posted while I was on vacation but, in the interest of time management, I'm only leaving one comment! Thanks for understanding.

Vasilly said...

Wow! What an amazing review. This books sounds so good! I've never seen it or heard of it before. I'm so glad that you've brought it to our attention.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This sounds awesome, and I find it hard to resist coming of age stories:)

Lenore Appelhans said...

This seems like something I would enjoy. Might fill me with outrage though for her situation.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

the review is great. enjoyed it.

Amy said...

Sounds like a really different and interesting story that explores a lot of important issues. Glad you enjoyed it!

Amy said...

I've never heard of this book biut it sounds wonderful. I'm totally loving Grace and can't believe she's only 16 years old. She seems to land on her feet but it sounds like every opportunity requires some major sacrifices on her part. I'm hoping that by the end of the book Grace is in a good place.
I'm really interested in reading the sections about Grace's Island acquaintances living in NYC & I'm glad she has those friends.

TheBookGirl said...

This was more of a mixed bag for me. I really enjoyed reading about Grace's personal struggles and I loved the peek into the "politics" of the playground. At the same time, I felt that the depiction of the family Grace worked for was one-dimensional, and I wanted to read more about Grace's relationship with Ben.

I'm glad you had a better experience with it :)

Geosi said...

I love the fact there is lots of drama in this one. Thanks for sharing, Zibilee.

Darlene said...

I've never heard of this book but it certainly sounds intriguing. After your enthusiasm for it though, I'll have to check into it further.

Jenny said...

Ooh I haven't heard of this but sounds good! Is it one Thad gives you a good feel for NYC? Actually is it in NYC or just New York in general?

Zibilee said...

Jenny, yes, it does give you a really good feel for NYC and certain parts of the city get a lot more play than others but it does represent a lot of what living in NYC is like. It's a really great book, and I hope that I have convinced you to read it!

Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

I do wonder if she ever finds her distant cousin and smacks him/her right upside the head. She sounds like such a courageous 16 yr old.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I had thoughts similar to NomadReader - Because of the fanciful cover, I thought this was lighter chick lit. I'd like to read about Grace, she sounds like a strong woman.

Stephanie said...

I realize you posted this review months ago, but I just found it via Google. :-) I loved this novel too, and I thoroughly enjoyed your excellent review. Many of my reactions were similar to yours. At times, my head was pounding because I badly wanted to hold Miriam on the ground and throttle her. :-( On the other hand, I love the fact that the author showed Miriam's vulnerable side too.

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