Near the end of this first novel, Crystal, one of the three principal characters, writes a poem, also called "A Woman's Place" and dedicated to South African activists Winnie Mandela and Mamphela Ramphela, in which she speaks of women "in the townships where/ despair is supposed to be," planting "the only seed that grows" -- teaching children to read, running clinics, dispensing food to the hungry: "the real revolution/ is pretty boring/ and is the only thing left/ that matters."
This is perhaps the central message -- that individual effort is the real revolution -- of "A Woman's Place," which traces the lives of three black women who meet at a prestigious, predominantly white college in Boston in the late 1960s. In chapters that alternate the women's voices, and occasionally the voices of other characters as well, Marita Golden, who won acclaim for her memoir "Migrations of the Heart," has written an affecting and admirable novel. As a novel, however, "A Woman's Place" is also flawed by its structure -- the sheer multiplicity of its voices -- and by the vast amount of sociopolitical history it seeks to cover in its slim 240 pages.
Like the characters in Mary McCarthy's "The Group" or Alice Adams' "Superior Women," Faith, Crystal and Serena meet in college and form what will be the closest, most enduring friendships of their lives. But the relationship of the three women is different from those of their counterparts in its necessity: at Winthrop University, they are thrust into an utterly alien world in which they are a minority both as women and as blacks, a world where they have come as much to meet their parents' expectations as their own.
The unhappiest of the three is Faith, who is flunking out of school because she has no desire to be there. Faith is the daughter of a father she has never known and an impoverished, embittered mother who has always told her, "Get some education and you won't need no man. A degree will never let you down." She wanted only to marry her high school boyfriend: " . . . I got tired of being afraid . . . of men and myself and my feelings, and I decided I was going to find a way not to be scared. The only way I knew not to be scared was to love somebody." Soon she becomes pregnant and leaves school, only to suffer a miscarriage.
Later she turns to Islam, where she becomes "Aisha" and meets Rasheed, a successful, much older businessman. Rasheed's wife has left him and he wants a fresh start: "And so I promised myself there would be few words next time. There would be possession and there would be control. I want this house to be filled with what I lost. And this time, I'll protect them. I won't let them get away." The only way to "protect" them, of course, is to see that they never change, and the only way to do that is to imprison them.
Serena, in some ways the most shadowy of the three, also wants something in which to lose herself. For her it will be a cause, as we see from her student days when she makes her own vigil to protest the killing of the black students at Jackson State. But although Serena goes to Africa, where she works helping women in an unnamed, developing nation, she learns that change does not come easily.
Some of the novel's most poignant scenes occur when Serena, visiting Detroit after many years in Africa, wanders into a fast-food restaurant near her old high school: "A young girl stood in line waiting to order when a boy at a nearby table summoned her with lighthearted possessiveness: 'Come here, bitch.' The girl pouted, turning to him saying, 'You gonna make me lose my place.' And in the moments it took the girl to walk to his table, over her shoulder asking the man who stood behind her to save her place, my heart broke several times."
Perhaps the consciousness closest to Golden's own is that of Crystal, a poet and teacher, who finds her life torn by guilt over her love for Neil, a white filmmaker. The ways in which she lives her life are the most interesting and least predictable of the three women. It is Crystal's voice that seems to sum up what each of them has learned by the novel's end: She knows that life is "how much you can salvage and find, after you have looked longer and harder than you thought possible."
By refusing to offer easy answers to the predicaments of women, and black women in particular, Golden makes us believe her characters and care about them. She is also to be admired for making the men, Rasheed and Neil, characters with whom one can sympathize.
My question about "A Woman's Place" is whether there are not too many voices competing for our attention. Sometimes it seems that Golden is trying to cover too much ground in such a short novel, that too much is hurried over in order to provide the reader with "information."
Still, "A Woman's Place" is worth reading by any of us who, like Neil, wonders "more and more these days what we will do to make it. How we will find a way to be happy."
The reviewer teaches at Rice University. Her new book of poems, "White Lies," will be published next year.