It had been that sort of day, the sort of day where one more ball can not possibly be held in the air, the sort of day where all you want by the end is a glass (or three) of wine and a good, guilty pleasure novel. Forget high literature, symbolism, depth and lyricism, I just wanted to dive into a story that made me lose my troubles in someone else’s more glamorous, and more dire, drama. Judging a book by its glitzy cover, I determined that the novel that had arrived in the afternoon mail might just fit the bill. I poured some Pinot Noir and curled into the recliner with Uptown by Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant.
The seventh collaboration between the two friends, Uptown reprises some of the characters from earlier DeBerry and Grant novels in a soap-operatic tale of larceny, high-society, sex, real-estate, and romance. Dwight Dixon, a rather sad-sack of a tycoon, launches an ambitious development project in New York City’s Harlem. Dwight walks in the ponderous footsteps of an overbearing father, "King" Dixon, and is, even in his own mind, not quite able to fill the shoes. The Dixon Plaza Project, envisioned by Dwight as the crowning jewel of the “new” Harlem, falls victim to the pitfalls and delays that plague many infill projects, at just the wrong time. Each delay, each setback pushes the project closer to the bursting of the real-estate bubble, the moment in which the country and the world awakened from the collective dream.
Overnight, housing becomes more important than luxury; the financing that flowed with the champagne has run dry, and those who need money are at the mercy of those few who still have it. In his dealings with his business partner, contractor, architect, planning commissioners, protestors, tenants, and reporters, we see a man who strives to emulate the ruthless ambition and efficiency of a larger-than-life father, yet Dwight somehow lacks the stomach, or perhaps the luck, for such dealings. Piece by piece, like the shoddy construction of his tenanted buildings, Dwight’s empire begins to crumble. The final stumbling block for the Dixon Plaza is a requirement for the allotment of additional public space. This should be an easy hurdle to clear. The building that occupies the block in question is owned by Dwight’s aunt and cousin.
Aunt Forestina agrees to sell the property to Dwight. However, when Forestina and King are in a car accident everything changes. Suddenly, Dwight must deal with his cousin Avery. Fortunately for Uptown, it is more Avery’s story than anyone else’s. Avery Lyons has used her State Department job as an excuse to leave her family and Harlem as far behind as possible. Prickly, competent, and private, Avery is completely undone by her mother’s accident. Forced into unwelcome intimacy with her family, friends, and memories, Avery reserves a particular animosity for Dwight.
While none of the secrets that emerge are particularly shocking, DeBerry and Grant use plot to good effect in revealing character. We see the roots of Avery’s alienation from her family; Dwight is shown to be even more of a worm than previously suspected. Through shifts in point-of-view, DeBerry and Grant manage to add dimension to stock characters. Villains are not absolute; the heroine possesses flaws aplenty.
If the conclusion is a bit too pat, if loose ends are tied up with too big a bow, in Uptown this is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we need fairytale endings. Some nights it is nice to believe that the universe works according to a system of justice. Uptown goes down like my Pinot Noir: light-bodied, smooth, slightly sweet, and with just enough complexity to make you pour another glass – or read another chapter.