I’ve seen No One is Coming to Save Us, by Stephanie Powell Watts, described by reviewers as a Great Gatsby but with black characters. This is misleading. This book does not follow the plot of The Great Gatsby, nor do Fitzgerald’s characters have one-to-one correspondents in Powell Watts’ novel. Because I’d read that comparison so often, I went into No One is Coming to Save Us with the wrong expectations. What I found when I read this book is a melancholy book about a family in North Carolina falling apart in a dying town. The fact that I didn’t find The Great Gatsby retold was a good thing for me because I loathe that book.
JJ Ferguson (who has some similarities to Jay Gatsby) has returned to the small town of Pinewood, North Carolina, to build his dream house and try to get his childhood sweetheart, Ava, to return his affection. Ava is married to a man who’s unfaithful to her but JJ and Ava’s relationships are about as close to Gatsby as No One is Coming to Save Us gets. Instead of telling a story about rich, unhappy people, this novel focuses on poor, unhappy people—mostly Ava and her mother, Sylvia. Ava is longing for a child and feels like she’s almost out of time to conceive. Sylvia still mourns the son she lost years ago. Though no one says it in so many words, they all long for how things used to be: before people died, before people cheated, before the good jobs left town. At times, No One is Coming to Save Us feels overlong because the plot seems as aimless as the characters at times.
This book might have been a completely miserable reading experience if it weren’t for the last quarter. Until Sylvia, Ava, and other characters have epiphanies about how to go on with their lives, they are all stuck in private miseries. Because I had Gatsby on the brain (trying to figure out where reviewers got the whole “recast Great Gatsby” thing from), I ended up with the last lines of that novel stuck in my head. Fitzgerald wrote, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” For most of No One is Coming to Save Us, the characters are rowing their boats backwards as hard as they can. I would have been as frustrated with them as I was with the cast of Gatsby if they hadn’t found a way to start rowing into the future.
What I liked most about No One is Coming to Save Us is its focus on female characters (too many dudes in Gatsby) and its strong sense of place. Sylvia and Ava are some of the most human characters I’ve read lately. We get deep inside their heads in this novel and see some deep truths and sorrows about motherhood and womanhood. The sense of place in No One is Coming to Save Us had me feeling the heat of a Carolina summer, the dusty feel of red dirt roads, and the sense of hopelessness in a town that has no future anymore.
I would recommend this to readers who like a cathartic, hopeful ending who are also willing to put up with a bit of a slog to get there, though I would recommend a light, fun follow-up for after.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for ALA’s Book Club Central.