The House of Eve

Written by Sadeqa Johnson
Review by Amanda Cockrell

The House of Eve explores culture, class, and the sometimes-heartbreaking complications of motherhood within the contrasting worlds of Black families in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Eleanor is the first of her family to go to college, but she comes from a loving, middle-class family determined to push her upward. It isn’t until she arrives at Howard University that she realizes there is a whole other Black world (called “Negro” in this novel in deference to the polite term of the time) of light-skinned, wealthy professionals who are less than pleased when their medical-student son, William, brings Eleanor home.

In contrast, fifteen-year-old Ruby has one shot out of the poverty that has been her family’s permanent birthright, a scholarship to college, but when she falls for the son of their Jewish landlord, the consequences upend her life. Told in chapters alternating between Eleanor and Ruby, we follow both women as Ruby tries to fight her way out of her world and Eleanor to find her place in William’s. The author’s choice to cast Eleanor’s voice in close third person and Ruby’s in first gives Ruby’s chapters a physicality and grittiness that contrast with Eleanor’s more interior upheavals.

At the center, almost from the beginning, is the question of motherhood. Eleanor and Ruby and most of the women surrounding them wrestle in one way or another with what it means to be a mother, to raise a child, abandon a child, to long for a child you can’t have, or to raise someone else’s. The answers they come to are fraught, even at the end, with potential anguish; as with every other mother in the novel, they do the best they can with what they have.