Here’s the thing…
I don’t usually read novels. I can’t say I really read more than three in a single year and, as time goes on, I find myself more and more immersed in poetry, lyric essay, critical theory, memoir, and other forms.
Something I do read slightly more occasionally, however, is the well-written short story.
I know of Kelli Green and her work from Twitter and, from the time before she released May (her debut novel and Book 1 of The Green Ivy Series), “Elizabeth.” Anyone who follows Green on Twitter knows she’s an extremely unique, intelligent, and grounded human being, and that played a major role in my decision to purchase and read “Elizabeth.” And let me tell you…
It. Was. Amazing.
In “Elizabeth,” Green managed to make me fall in love with her two main characters (Marianna and Elizabeth) while simultaneously ripping my heart straight from my chest. In fact, this is the review I left for “Elizabeth” on Amazon and Goodreads.
“Everyone needs to read Elizabeth. Firstly, the story is short and fast-paced while still remaining extremely powerful. Furthermore, the author has a special talent for detail such that you never feel weighed down by it; rather, the details here serve to get you deeply invested in these beautiful characters and their well-beings before you’ve even gotten near the middle of the story. There are also very important race dynamics at play here; the author does a spectacular job of allowing readers to see the impact of these for ourselves through a narrative that takes us on a bit of an emotional roller-coaster up until and even past the conclusion. Elizabeth is an extremely important story and an absolute must-read.”
I also knew upon completing “Elizabeth” in 2019 that, when the complete novel came out (since the short story is actually an excerpt from May), I would be ready to buy and read it. Therefore, months later (in 2020), when Green finally released her debut novel, the book shot straight to the top of my to-read list, only second in priority to texts I still needed to consume for classes and my thesis.
While Green’s short story “Elizabeth” absolutely reeled me in, it did not prepare me for the experience of May.
Let’s begin with the main character: Marianna.
Marianna is a very unique and inspiring breed of human specimen. While I, myself, am not very much like her, I did know a Marianna once in my life. Proud, stubborn, and a tad bit impulsive, but also compassionate, intelligent, courageous, adaptable, independent, deeply aware of her white privilege, and unrelenting in her convictions — two properly dynamic and lovable women.
The Marianna I knew once upon a time also opted out of her legacy of white supremacy, ease, and ignorance, like Green’s, and traded it in instead for a more enriching, authentic, and activism-oriented life than the one she was born into. Green’s Marianna and my Marianna also both had/have a certain untouchable coolness, but not in an intentional way that makes them ridiculous, obnoxious, or cruel. Their inherent coolness is in their morals, their convictions, their constant need to stand up for what they believe in, their utter disregard for what others think about them, and their inability to support anything they considered unjust.
While Marianna is the main character in May, that doesn’t mean that Green didn’t spend just as much time shaping her other characters. They all have pros and cons to them, strengths and weaknesses. Human flaws in the “good guys” are balanced with extremely redeemable traits and a constant willingness to be better wherever possible.
Complacency and immorality make up the character profiles for most of the “bad guys,” but never in a way that makes them unbelievable to Green’s readers. Like the “good guys,” there is so much real-world relevance that the reader is able to digest how and why they are, even if how and why they are is almost or altogether evil.
The main character’s love interest is also worth noting here. His name is Jon, and while he’s like Marianna in most ways, the things he doesn’t share in common with her are most of what balances the couple out and makes them a perfect match. In fact, I found Jon to be the most relatable character in the book, and I love that Green created someone for everyone when she probably could’ve stopped after Marianna and gotten away with it.
I’m not an effortless cool girl like Marianna, nor am I brave enough to exist as boldly in the world as she does. Jon, however, in his constant understanding of the hardly ideal world we all live in, awareness of his privilege, and his passion to do his best within it while still somewhat abiding by its laws to keep his family safe…
That’s something I can understand and relate to.
While, at the end of the day, I’d love to be a “Marianna,”I know I am not, and I accept that. If we were all “Mariannas,” then the current “Mariannas” of the world couldn’t really exist as “Mariannas” themselves.
Nevertheless, one of the characters in May who truly deserves an honorable mention and all the best things in the world is the famous Elizabeth. Here, we have a strong-headed, individual-thinking, curious, and mischievous pre-teen girl who the reader immediately understands deserves a better hand than she is given.
May is a post-slavery period piece, and the eleven-/twelve-year-old, black, essentially servant-by-birth Elizabeth and sixteen-year-old, white, privileged-at-birth Marianna are best friends.
Elizabeth, who didn’t have a family, friends, food, or a real place to stay before she and Marianna came together, is the little girl you want to take in, feed, tuck in for a nap, and then buy some ribbons and new dresses for before heading over to the adoption agency so you can figure out how to make her new, loving home with you official in the eyes of the law.
With the character of Elizabeth and her intricate story line, there is a lot to write and even more to unpack, so I won’t get into the details here. What I will say is to look out for her when you read the novel, and also to allow yourself to fall in love with what I consider Green’s most beautiful character thus far.
Regarding May overall…
As I mentioned previously, I was actually super nervous about reading a novel since I usually read and write in other areas. Even when I do read novels, they tend to exist in very different genres. Nonetheless, while May can be categorized as a few different things, I strongly believe that it is a novel for all readers of any genre.
I felt comfortable in the pages of May before I even reached the second chapter; that’s a special talent of Green’s, among many others. Every page, place, character, chapter, etc. is written with love, care, intention, and detail. Green is also clearly a witty human being, and she’s not afraid to let this shine through in her writing.
Therefore, May quickly went from “this awesome book I’m reading” to my main source of escapism and the thing I looked forward to each morning. It pulled me through a very tough few weeks. There was laughter, there were tears, there were life lessons, and there were characters you’ll take with you even once the book is over.