Kendall Wakefield and Julian Rose are an unlikely couple, especially in South Florida of 1938: she’s the artistically minded daughter of an African-American college’s female president, while he’s a German-Jewish man who became wealthy via bootlegging during Prohibition.
While Julian’s personality can be disconcerting—his enemies soon discover his expertise in Mafia-style intimidation, and his thoughts about his lover occasionally feel clichéd—Kendall is captivating, and her resolve to push past racial discrimination and succeed on her own terms feels piercingly real. Both have uneasy relationships with their family members, who are all vivid characters.
Each setting is re-created with a socially conscious eye, from the horrifying racism of the Jim Crow South to the Greenwich Village art scene to postwar Paris, whose residents’ emotional suffering hasn’t dimmed their appreciation for beauty. Julian and Kendall are independent, courageous people who grow over time, and their story feels undeniably romantic.
Wherever There Is Light was published by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in November (hb, $25.00, 368pp). This review first appeared in Booklist's October issue. Read more in an interview with the author for the Gaston (NC) Gazette, where he discusses his inspiration for his work and the little-known story of how historically Black colleges gave refuge to Jewish academics fleeing Europe (such as Julian's father in the novel) in the 1930s.