The Bookworm Sez: Big Band music, gin and cigar smoke

You know how to use a hammer.

It’s not that hard: just grab the end and swing. Easy enough; in fact, there are probably lots of tools you know how to use, although, as in the new novel “Unforgivable Love” by Sophfronia Scott (c.2017, Wm. Morrow, $15.99, 516 pages), do you know how to use people?

Absolutely nobody ever said “no” to Mae Malveaux.

Young, beautiful, wealthy, and widowed, Mae ruled Harlem society with a silky hammer, surrounding herself with carefully-chosen sycophants and moneyed men who hoped Mae might fall in love with them.

Mae wanted love, that’s true. But she wanted it her way — which is why she was angry when she saw her former lover, Frank Washington, in a nightclub she considered her domain. How dare he? She was even angrier when she learned that he planned to marry her cousin’s virginal daughter, Cecily. Mae seethed, until she noticed that Valiant Jackson had walked into the club, too.

Of all the men she’d ever had, Mae considered Val her equal. He wasn’t as smart, but he was every bit as devious as she, and he loved a good game. On the spot, Mae cooked up a scheme and promised Val that he could have what he’d always wanted, in exchange for revenge on Frank. What Val wanted was Mae.

But she wasn’t the only woman Val had his sights set on. Elizabeth Townsend, a friend of Val’s Aunt Rose, seemed to be the challenge he craved; Elizabeth was beautiful, pious and straight-laced, and was passing time at Rose’s house while awaiting the return of her lawyer-husband.

Val knew she was wedded, but could she be bedded? He thought so.

But could Elizabeth be distracted while Val seduced Cecily — or, at least, while he waited for Mae’s latest young lover to seduce Cecily for him? It would all hinge on secrets kept, but the outcome would be a win-win for both Mae and Val.

And that was fine with Mae. She loved those kinds of schemes.

Destroying people was one of her better talents …

Obviously, the very first thing you’re going to notice about “Unforgivable Love” when you see it is its 500-plus-page heft. It’s a big book and yes, it’s wordy sometimes, but don’t let that scare you off. This is a great story.

Based loosely on a book first published in 1782, but set mostly in Harlem in the post-World War II years, this novel offers readers some shockers, right from the outset, when we see from where the character Mae’s nastiness sprang. Author Sophfronia Scott takes the tale up from there, in twisty turns that include a huge cast that’s surprisingly easy to keep track of, despite the numbers. Add in a background soundtrack of Big Band music and a whiff of gin and cigar smoke, and you’ve got a rich, multi-layered novel you’ll love peeling apart.

Now, admittedly, that may be a slow peel at times, but sticking with it has its rewards.

In the end, “Unforgivable Love” is a very good use of your time.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Email her at bookwormsez@yahoo.com.

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