Lambda Literary Award-winner Paula Martinac’s fourth novel, “The Ada Decades,” encompasses nearly 70 years in the life of the eponymous Ada Jane Shook, bright, brave, intensely private yet unashamed, profoundly self-aware except when it comes to assigning value to her own strengths. One day in 1957, Ada begins her first grownup job as a school librarian, witnesses the entrance of that school’s first black student and meets Cam, who five decades later will sit at a small kitchen table, hold her hands and call her “the one I was meant to be with.” The city of Charlotte, meanwhile, is nearly as prominent a character as Ada or her suitably named partner Miss Lively.
While this may prove bewildering to the Netflix-dependent, “The Ada Decades” is not binge material. Born as a series of short stories, the volume retains the unmistakable spirit of a concept album — so much so that it would be equally compelling read backwards. To begin at the beginning is to take each chapter as another dramatic leap away from the newsreel past, leaving us able only to guess at what may have transpired in the intervening years. It’s a perfectly valid approach. For some, though, putting that speculation to the test will be a more intriguing prospect. Read an Ada tale, digest it, let it sit inside you for a while, and then set the time machine in reverse. Read the one before. Ask it to enlighten you, to afford you a glimpse into memory, and watch the characters you thought you knew unfold before you.
In a work of quiet wisdom, the wisest choice of all is to address race only as it’s experienced by Ada herself. You’ll find no arrogant, erudite Sorkin-esque speeches here. Our protagonist, a white woman of a certain background and temperament, is compassionate enough to perceive other people’s pain, innocent enough to be surprised by their cruelty, sage enough to realize that she will never entirely comprehend either. But it is her honesty that stands as the rarest of her virtues. Ada’s inability to deceive herself is, if not second to none, at least second to few, and she is ahead of her time in articulating that questions of identity and equality don’t always exhibit the nobility of battle, or even a gritty kind of romance. Grand principles struggle in the sticky web of personal insecurities. Self-awareness does not beget self-control. Sometimes things just get awkward.
“The Ada Decades” is a historical novel with a keen sense of its own modern relevance. For many years its hero regards a friend’s habit of declaring that “the gays have to stick together,” an axiom by which many in the LGBTQ community now live, largely as a bit of endearing quirkiness. It’s a lifetime before a near-stranger leads her to wonder whether “what they had been through might be of value to another generation.” Martinac, for one, holds these truths to be self-evident.
“The Ada Decades”
by Paula Martinac
©2017, Bywater Books
About the author:
Award-winning writer Paula Martinac has published four novels and three non-fiction books, as well as being a syndicated columnist in addition to being a playwright. Originally from Pittsburg, Pa., Martinac now lives in Charlotte, N.C. with her wife and teaches creative writing to undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She also serves as a writing coach with the Authors Lab of the Charlotte Center for the Literary Arts.