Cover image for Bittersweet
Johnson, Freddie Lee.
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Publication Information:
New York : One World/Ballantine Books, [2002]

Physical Description:
372 pages ; 24 cm
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Clifford. Victor. Nathan. Three brothers as different as they come. Three lives that veer unexpectedly off course. One bond that heals them all. . . . Clifford sees his life as picture-perfect: two wonderful young sons, a fast-track career, and a solid marriage. But fresh back from a family vacation in Florida, Clifford is hit with a stunning blow when his wife Demetria declares that she is leaving him for "true love, excitement, and fun"--an announcement that throws him into an uncontrollable tailspin of denial. With one failed marriage under his belt, and a precious daughter his ex-wife bars him from seeing, Victor is no expert in romantic love. His philosophy? The only way to keep a woman from squeezing every last drop from you is to get out before things get too deep. But lately Victor hasn't been feeling quite like himself--especially since he's been falling for Edie and her little girl. Seems like he spends more time looking out for her then he does staking out new booty calls. Even in the face of tragedy and travail, Nathan, a minister, remains hopeful. His marriage is a paragon of Christian ideals, his loving wife Brenda is his soul mate and support. But it wasn't always that way. Nathan has left some ugly wreckage in his wake before finding God. Now he and Brenda are truly blessed with a solid family and an adoring congregation. Then, a troubled divorcée tempts Nathan--and threatens the sacred vows he swore to uphold. While Clifford, Victor, and Nathan struggle with the unexpected--faltering marriages, breaking hearts, and torn childhoods that threaten to repeat themselves in the lives of their children--each will discover the true redemptive power of a brother's love. By turns fierce and passionate, tender and humorous, this wise novel blasts the stereotype that black men's ties to their families are tenuous at best. Freddie Lee Johnson III tells a refreshing story of three complex men who fight to do right by their families--both the ones they created, and the one they were born into. The result is Bittersweet.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Three brothers born in Pittsburgh and raised by their mother are as different from one another as they are united by blood. Clifford is the achiever and lives the American dream: wife, two children, a home in the suburbs, and a dog. His picture-perfect world comes to a screeching halt when his wife announces that she wants out of the marriage. Nathan is a minister, whose marriage is the example that so many want to follow. Yet he is tempted by one of his parishioners. This weakness forces him to rethink his priorities when his family and marriage become threatened. Victor is a gladiator, who has been angry and fighting since he was a young boy. He goes to war with his ex-wife for visitation with his daughter and battles with himself over his reluctance to engage in a monogamous relationship. These caring and sensitive men love their mother, wives, and children, but each is forced to deal with his choices about women and the consequences of those choices. --Lillian Lewis

Publisher's Weekly Review

In his debut, Johnson aims high, attempting to tell the intertwined stories of three African-American brothers, but he overextends his reach as the tales spiral in hackneyed directions. Nathan, the oldest, successfully presides over his Pittsburgh church as he battles the advances of a female parishioner. Victor, or "Ice," drives a bus in Cleveland and overflows with a street bravado that sometimes slips into caricature. Clifford, the most interesting of the trio, pursues an M.B.A. while working at a white-collar job; he tries to live the middle-class African-American dream, but when his wife decides to divorce him, his life crumbles as he desperately strives to gain custody of his sons. Johnson arranges the novel so that all three brothers suffer relationship difficulties simultaneously; a contrived setup, but one that allows him to offer a variety of thoughtful perspectives on the topic of marriage and the pressures couples endure to make their partnerships work. In some interesting internal monologues, the brothers emerge as distinct people, but the abrupt cuts back and forth between them disrupt the flow of the tale. The brothers' mother a widowed former educator working toward her Ph.D. emerges as the strongest character even though she is relegated to a supporting role. Providing guidance, leadership and a verbal smack in the face when necessary, she offers comfort and advice in her sons' times of trouble. This is a heartfelt first novel, but it fails to lend fresh insight into the dynamics of contemporary African-American family life. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Bittersweet is an apt title for this tale of three brothers: Clifford, who works hard to support his wife and two young sons while completing his MBA; Nathan, who long ago gave himself over to the Lord and is now a minister with a wife and two teenaged children; and Victor, a divorced absentee father who works as a bus driver and plays the field. The three have never had much in common, but their mother, now a school principal and Ph.D. candidate, has impressed upon them the importance of God and blood despite all differences. Ironically, it is Victor, whom the others have always felt deserving of their prayers and pity, who is getting his life together and offering his brothers some good advice for doing the same. In his first novel, Johnson gambles successfully with an unusual format: the story is told by each brother in alternating chapters, a technique that works well because it allows the reader to see each man's internal struggles and the consequences for each family unit. With three stories being told simultaneously, this novel has a huge cast of characters, and Johnson does an excellent job of developing each character to the extent needed by the story. The result is a loving tale of family and what it means to be an African American man in today's society. Recommended for popular fiction collections, this would also serve well in academic libraries supporting men's studies and courses in the African American family. Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



CLIFFORD It's a bright, beautiful morning and we've just hit cruising altitude, flying home from Walt Disney World to Pittsburgh, when Demetria turns from the window and stares through me. "I'm not happy," she says. I smile and pat her hand. "Next vacation will be better." "I'm not talking about that! It's this marriage. Clifford, I'm not in love with you anymore. I'm not sure I even like you." I sit riveted to my seat. Invisible hands squeeze my head from the outside while a seventy-car pileup rattles it from the inside. "Baby, what did you say?" She jerks her hand away. "You heard me! I want out of this marriage. And I don't wanna talk about it!" She turns back to the window, suddenly determined to become the world's most knowledgeable cloud expert. I caress her shoulder, wondering why it's been so long since I've noticed its softness, its beauty. Demetria slaps my hand away as if it were some leprous claw. "Demmy?" She doesn't answer, so I lean closer and whisper. "Demetria?" "Leave me alone!" she snarls, snapping her head around and narrowing her eyes. She glares at me, then turns away. I count the steel-gray hairs of the man in front of me. He and the woman sitting next to him are leaning against each other, snuggling and whispering. "Sir, would you like something to drink?" The flight attendant's voice is a small echo that gradually gets louder. "Excuse me, sir. Would you like something to drink?" I try to answer, but my throat's too tight. The flight attendant leans close and pats my shoulder. "I understand," she says. "But there's no need to be afraid. Flying is still statistically safer than driving." She empties a miniature bottle of scotch into a cup and hands it to me before I can tell her I don't drink. "On the house," she says. "Will you be okay?" I nod and look at myself in the polished metal of her food service cart. The reflection scares me. ON THE GROUND, WE FIGHT OUR WAY THROUGH THE CRUSH OF HUMANITY TO THE BAG- gage claim, then to the airport shuttle. Our little boys, five-year-old Bradley and seven-year-old Barry (I call them Braddie and Bear), are in the seats directly across from us in the shuttle bus, playing with their Disney-toy loot. Braddie lowers his voice into a poor imitation of James Earl Jones's bass as he pretends to be the elder lion, Mufasa, from The Lion King. And Bear imitates the son, Simba, who after much consideration and agonizing has decided to eat his longtime warthog friend Pumbaa after all. "Dada, are we gonna pick up Scratch?" asks Braddie, the excitement in his voice proving that he's really missed our lovable mongrel. "I'm petting him first!" declares Bear. I force a smile. My face feels like it's cracking from the effort. "Don't worry, guys. We'll stop by Grandy's on the way home and get him." They whoop their approval and return to their Disney fantasizing. The driver's voice scratches out over the intercom, "Please call out the row and section number where you're parked." "Twenty-six-C!" I shout. The driver gives a thumbs-up and winds his way through the parking lot, eventually letting us off at our brand-new Toyota Camry. Demetria and the boys get in while I load the luggage into the trunk. When I shut it, new-car showroom freshness whooshes into my nostrils, flooding my mind with memories of the day we bought the car. There's Demetria, pulling me across the showroom floor, talking fast as she explains how the four-door will be better for us since the boys are getting bigger. Here's the salesman, talking such a smooth line, it feels good to believe him. There's Demetria, pulling into the driveway, the sleek vehicle looking like it was designed around her panther body. "Clifford!" Demetria calls. "What're you doing back there?" "Nothing," I say, forcing the words out past the lump in my throat. I get in and we start off. I turn onto the expressway for the forty-minute drive first to Momma's house, then to our upscale town house rental in Penn Hills Commons. In no time at all the boys fall asleep, exhausted from too much fun and too much travel. I'd better try and get some answers now. Once we're home, they'll be causing so much commotion that having any kind of serious discussion with my wife will be next to impossible. Demetria's seat is reclined and her eyes are closed but I know she's awake. "Demmy?" She exhales in an exasperated huff. "I knew you were gonna do this." "Do what?" "Hound me." "Baby, don't you think we need to talk?" "No!" "Sshh! The kids." "No, I do not think we need to talk," says Demetria, her voice a harsh, rasping whisper. "I told you how I feel. What else is there to know?" I look at her and say, "Are you serious?" Demetria's eyes flap open like shutters. She returns her seat to the upright position and looks at me with hard, loveless eyes. "I'm dead serious. What made you think I wasn't?" "I don't know what to think," I say, swerving back into my lane. "That's why we need to talk, baby. I need to know what's going on." "Clifford! I don't see what the problem is. I told you I'm not happy. I told you I don't love you anymore. I don't even like you. How much simpler can I make it?" "But, baby . . ." Demetria sounds like she's growling when she says, "Stop calling me baby!" My forearm muscles bulge as I tighten my grip on the steering wheel. "Demetria, why're you doing this?" "Doing what?" "What's made you suddenly want to destroy this family?" "Suddenly?" Scornful laughter bubbles up from her throat. "There's nothing sudden about it." She looks at me with twinkling eyes, like she's having fun and she knows I'm not. Then her expression softens, like it's dawning on her that I don't understand what she's talking about. "You honestly don't know, do you?" "No!" I whisper hoarsely. "I don't have the slightest idea." She stares straight ahead. "It's about truth, Clifford. It started just before we left on vacation, with a conversation that Nolan, Tammy, and I had at work. . . ." Them again. I should've guessed that Nolan and Tammy were somewhere at the bottom of this crap. Ever since Demetria started working at 21st Century Polymers I've had my suspicions about them and their viral influence. Especially that crud Nolan. I've told her time and again about letting their opinions interfere in our marriage but she insists that it's no different than the so-called interference from my brothers, Nathan and Victor. "We were talking about what people would do if they were really told the truth," says Demetria. "So we decided to try it, just for fun. But the conversation turned serious when Nolan shared with us what he was gonna tell Elaine. . . ." She rambles on about Nolan, who routinely seeks her out as confidante, counselor, and comforter. Whenever his love life is in crisis, Demetria always nurses him back to health. ". . . so when Nolan finished talking, I told him he deserved someone that he could not only love, but be in love with. Someone he had things in common with, could have fun with, and who would be there for him when he needed them. I told him he was crazy to stay in a relationship where his needs weren't being met." Demetria pauses and lets the words sink in. I keep my eyes on the road. "Is that all?" I ask. "No," she snips. "On vacation, I realized that I'd been talking about myself." Demetria looks at me and I glance at myself in the rearview mirror. Bowling balls of sweat are rolling down my face. "Clifford," she goes on. "I don't wanna live like this anymore. I want true love, excitement, and fun. But not with you. I want a divorce." The words fall from her lips like late autumn leaves that have been waiting, waiting, waiting for winter finally to come. "Clifford. Clifford!" "Yeah, ba . . . I mean, what?" "Why are you driving in two lanes?" I get back in my lane and check the dash digital readout. A green light comes on, indicating a temperature adjustment. Downward. I glance at the source of the chill. "Demetria?" "What is it, Clifford?" Her tone tells me that she wishes I and this subject would just dry up and blow away. "Couldn't you have decided this before we bought the car?" Demetria's face darkens with a disgust so profound, I feel like I've been slapped. "If all you're worried about is the car, I'll take over the payments." "I'm not worried only about the car," I snap. "But do you expect me to believe that your wanting to dump me for true love, excitement, and fun one lousy month after we bought this thing is some kind of accident?" "I don't care what you believe. I told you where I stand and that's that!" She closes her eyes and turns away from me. "Demmy, can we please talk about this?" "No!" I spot Braddie and Bear in the rearview mirror, both awake and looking scared. "Go to sleep!" I order. Their eyes snap shut but I hardly expect them to sleep. This is ridiculous. If I were my brother Victor, I'd pull onto the shoulder, drag Demetria out of this car, and make her talk to me. But I'm not Victor and I can hear him ridiculing me again. Cliff, you sorry chump. Why're you lettin her punk you? I tune into a soul oldies station. Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire is singing "That's the Way of the World." I glance in the rearview mirror. My face looks stupid and weak. After nearly a half hour of riding in this arctic silence, I almost miss the exit that puts me on the road to Momma's house. I get off the expressway, go through the intersections, and turn onto Momma's street. As we get closer, I see that her garage door's open, so I know she's home. I hope Demetria comes inside. If she doesn't, Momma will not only be insulted but will start asking a lot of questions that I don't feel like answering. For the most part, Momma and Demetria have a decent relationship. But they've had their moments, most of them related to matters of child rearing, like the time Momma threatened to spank Braddie and Bear. Demetria was furious, railing about them being traumatized and calling Momma's methods regressive and counterproductive. "She should've given them a time-out or had them watch one of the Love My Buddy videos," she complained. "That's why we bought them. To teach the boys alternatives to aggression." "Demetria, I agree with you," I said. "But since Momma gave them a warning instead of a spanking, don't you think she's as sensitive to the issue as you are?" "No, Clifford. I never would've threatened them. And I don't understand your nonchalance. Aren't you concerned about your children growing up desensitized to violence?" "Of course I'm concerned. But trust me when I tell you that Momma's nothing like she used to be. The only kind of warning Nate, Victor, and I ever got was a thunder roll." I finally got Demetria to agree that a threatened spanking wasn't likely to transform Braddie and Bear into Mob hit men, but only after I assured her that I'd talk with Momma about practicing the kinder, gentler version of parenting advocated by the "experts." I pull up in front of Momma's house, park, and am relieved when Demetria gets out with the boys. By the time I'm out of the car, Braddie and Bear are at the front door, their faces glowing with expectation now that they're mere seconds away from our dog, Scratch. I try to lighten my step as I approach the house, doing my best to calm the tornadoes shredding my heart. The last thing I need is Momma using her hyperintuitive-shared-family-spirits baloney to get in my business. But even if she senses something, I'm not obliged to explain. No matter how much my family might want to interfere, I'm going to work this out in my way, in my time. The only person I don't have to worry about is Victor. He'll equate Demetria's departure with finding a cure for cancer. I'm lucky he's in Cleveland. Digging my way out of this mess will be hard enough without having to hammer through his hostility. Scratch barks as soon as Demetria rings the doorbell. "Coming!" Momma answers. She opens the door and looks right past me and Demetria to the boys. "How's my precious pair?" she says. Braddie and Bear holler back, "Grandy!" Momma's hair is pulled back into that French roll Daddy always said made her look exotic and beautiful. He was right. And her diligent commitment to whatever workout routine she's been following down at that health spa has resurrected some of the curves and indentations that make me glad she's a churchgoing woman. Scratch, his tail going like a turboprop, starts spinning in tight circles behind Momma. She glances at him, smirks, and says, "I'm so glad you all are back to take this crazy dog." She talks tough, but Momma's the only person who loves Scratch more than the boys do. Braddie and Bear rush in and bombard Scratch with petting. Momma plants her hands on her hips and assumes the tired-of-talkin' stance that never failed to send me, Nate, and Victor fleeing for safety. "How dare you dirt-monsters run in here without first giving me a kiss?" says Momma, the love in her eyes belying the indignation in her voice. The boys forget Scratch and rush to Momma, who's already bending down and offering her cheeks for their loud, smacking kisses. She hugs them both, making them squirm and giggle. "I've got something for you two," she announces. "Tell us! Tell us!" "Look downstairs." The boys zoom off to find their treasure, with Scratch following close behind. Momma shakes her head and chuckles as she watches them scramble through the door. "They're so full of energy," she says. "You should've seen them at Disney World," Demetria confirms. Momma's eyes meet Demetria's and, to my further relief, they summon smiles for each other and exchange a perfunctory hug. Then each retreats quickly into the safety of her space. Excerpted from Bittersweet by Freddie Lee Johnson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.