Maturing, succeeding in spite of her parents

Special to The Times

Eleven-year-old Angela Davis Brown must learn to face life after her mother abandons the family for the lights and glamour of Hollywood in “When Did You Stop Loving Me,” the first novel by journalist and memoirist Veronica Chambers (“Mama’s Girl”). Left in the solo care of her bewildered father, Teddo, a magician who’s scraping by gig-to-gig in Brooklyn, Angela hardly knows what to make of her mother, Melanie, walking out the door one nondescript 1979 day and never coming back. “My father was a magician, but my mother was the real Houdini,” Angela narrates, detailing the months following this departure set amid the zeitgeist of the late 1970s.

Teddo, who performs in nightclubs, for bar mitzvahs and at country clubs to eke out a living, drives an outdated Mercedes on which he lavishes attention, but he cannot keep food in the house on a regular basis. He uproots Angela every few months, trying to stay ahead of the bills. He’s forever ranting about the evils of white culture and how Angela should take pride in her African heritage as he aspires to a life of ease he believes the upper middle class enjoys. “One minute he was going on about white devils and the original Asiatic black man’s place as the rightful heir of the earth, the next he was acting like there’d be no better place for me to go than a straight-up preppy white boarding school in the country,” Angela laments.

It takes a few months for Melanie’s disappearance to fully sink in, but Angela gradually comes to understand that her mother not only left her father, she left Angela as well. “No divorce papers, no custody arrangements, no indication at all that I was more than the toothbrush she left behind.”


Agreeing to serve as her father’s assistant for a PBS telethon to benefit the United Negro College Fund, Angela begins to sense her own female authority under the television camera’s intense stare, thanks to a skimpy costume, expert makeup and a padded bra. Muhammad Ali, one of her father’s most revered heroes, sees the pair on television and invites them to stay awhile at his training camp. It is there, under Ali’s tutelage, that Angela begins to claim her own power and the novel’s thin plot starts to fray. Ali writes simple poems for Angela, dotes on her and encourages her to become a princess in Africa. “Marry yourself an African prince and you’d do just fine,” he advises, setting her on the path toward wholeness.

In the final chapter, the narrative jumps to the present day, in which we meet Angela as the self-assured woman she’s become in spite of her upbringing as a motherless child. She went on to attend that preppy white boarding school, we learn, served as Miss Black New York City and established a career in law for herself, though Chambers gives us only the Cliffs Notes version of these events, as if to reassure us that it all comes out well in the end.

The question at the heart of the book -- how does a girl survive in the wake of maternal abandonment? -- is an intensely personal and emotional one. Unfortunately, Angela’s loss is never told in terms intimate enough for readers to empathize with. The mother Angela misses remains an ephemeral figure, more a representative of motherhood than a living, breathing woman. “I wanted Mommy back not only because I missed the shadow of her womanhood, the way it cloaked me even when she was away at work,” Angela narrates. Melanie may be, as Angela tells us, a woman with beauty-queen looks, who analyzed the psychology of beauty and tore ads out of Essence magazine to ponder “pictures of thin, beautiful, brown-skinned women, like Barbies dipped in chocolate,” but we don’t see enough of her through Angela’s eyes to share her grief.

Thankfully, the same cannot be said of Teddo, who is not only bigger than life but replete with his own flawed nature. The real story, the one with meat on its bones, is less about motherly neglect than about Angela’s relationship with Teddo as she begins to see through his smoke and mirrors. “[A]fter Mommy left, I realized I’d gotten it all wrong. My father might have been the one in the top hat and tails, the one who stood center stage. But my father wasn’t Gladys Knight, he was a Pip.”

Here, Chambers gives us real-life, visceral moments as Angela comes to terms with the imperfect reality of all humans, even those, like Teddo, who have only the best intentions at heart. Perhaps Angela finds too easily that vein of strength, dignity and persistence that will see her through to adulthood; still, her experience of loving and coming to depend on her imperfect father makes for an affecting tale in itself.