Before I read this book, I thought it would be a very straightforward tale of betrayal, revenge and reparation. In some sense, it is just that. But there are so many other things going on in this book that I think the main story gets lost somewhere.
The first 11 chapters of this book is a fairly tight and riveting story of Hosanna and Gilda's relationship. We hear the story of Hosanna and Gilda in Hosanna's first-person narration. It is post WWII L.A. Black people have not prospered the way they should have. Hosanna is a maid who is strong willed and ambitious. She doesn't want to wash people's floors for the rest of her life. Although an optimist, Hosanna is very emotionally hardened by the relentlessness of daily racism. At one point later on, Matriece, Hosanna's daughter says "She was born the wrong race and the wrong gender at the wrong time." There is a clear message even in these early pages that Hosanna could have been a success if it weren't for the tragedy of racism.
Along comes Gilda who is a Jewish woman. She is, as seen through the eyes of Hosanna, a timid woman who is simply surviving day to day from the ravages of her past. She is a Holocaust survivor of the Nazi death camps. Because this first part of the book is told from Hosanna's viewpoint, we never get a real bead on Gilda. For me, she remained a very remote figure, even later on when the POV switches to the third-person omniscience of the author. She is molded not just by her experiences as a prisoner but also as a person who finds herself in Hosanna's forceful presence. Even though it is true that she takes off with the money she and Hosanna make from their small cosmetics venture, it is very difficult to actually hate Gilda.
At about chapter 12 the focus shifts, in more ways than one. We are now in present day LA and Hosanna's daughter Matriece is living the bitterness of her mother. She is working for Gilda, who is now a cosmetics giant (think Estee Lauder) and biding her time to get the reparations she is owed. But this isn't the only story. The narrative splinters all over the place. We get a story of an unhappy singer and her relationship with her absentee dad. We get a story of a woman who is slowly losing touch with her son. We get a story of a man with a gambling problem who is desperate for money. We get the story of the directionless son of a powerful black businessman. There are a lot of little stories all interconnected that get a lot of attention but the main story of Hosanna's legacy gets buried somewhere amongst them all.
Of course there are some interesting themes that run through all the stories. The treacherous waters of parent/child relations run through all the stories. Matriece and Hosanna's relationship is just a back-drop for all the other parental relationships in the story. And the title alone "What you owe me" is strongly thematic of the entire book. Reparations is a heavy undercurrent in here. Gilda's receipt of a check from a Swiss bank with the money from her parents' savings (including 50 years of interest) is just a tangible (and ironic) example. Everyone in the book is seeking some type of reparation for something owed. But while the message of reparation is unmistakably clear, the answers to the question it raises is not so clear. Is it worth the time, effort and emotional toll to seek what is owed or is it better make a fulfilling life with what you have?
I wish the book had been more focused on Matriece's struggle and Hosanna's legacy. As it is, it becomes almost anticlimactic. I did like the book because, although I found these other people's stories somewhat distracting, I couldn't help but like them, become very involved in them and root for them. This is a testament to Ms. Campbell's the absorbing storytelling. While I can't give this book 5 stars, I do think it is a good absorbing read and I do recommend it.