The protagonists of Kim McLarin's gutsy new novel, Meeting of the Waters, meet under inauspicious circumstances, near the infamous South Central L.A. corner of Florence and Normandie during the post-Rodney King verdict riots in 1992. Porter Stockman, a veteran reporter, is about to be beaten to death when he is rescued by a fellow journalist who stumbles onto the scene. Lenora, or Lee, as she is called, frantically pushes Porter into his car but refuses his invitation to get in and ride to safety. "I have a better chance on foot than you do in this car," she says matter-of-factly to the baffled Porter. Why? Because Lee is black, and Porter is white.
McLarin skillfully prepares the reader for what will be a roller-coaster relationship between Lee, who is painfully aware of race, and Porter, who is painfully not. Race affects Lee's entire life, from the stories she covers to the real-estate agents she chooses, and she goes out of her way to set a good example for less fortunate African Americans. Porter, on the other hand, is not affected by race. At least he doesn't think he is. And therein lies the rub.
Porter, a proud, dyed-in-the-wool liberal, breezily dismisses Lee's race as irrelevant; to consider it a factor at all, he thinks, would be "distasteful...close-minded, biased, suburban, and small." Why should he, or anyone else, care that Lee is black? Porter glosses over the issue and sets out on a no-holds-barred pursuit of the beautiful, whip-smart woman.
But he doesn't get very far. Lee is immediately suspicious of his interest. She was raised to distrust white people and, when Porter turns on the charm, she shuts him out. Flowers he sends her at work are taken home immediately; lunch and dinner dates are refused. Her strong sense of who she is--a black woman who does not date white men--prevents her from considering Porter an acceptable suitor. But he is unusually persistent. He eventually wears her down and persuades her, finally, to give him a chance.
Once Lee relents, she sheds her tough-girl exterior and lets herself need and be needed by Porter. The more she gives, the more vulnerable she becomes, and the more vulnerable she becomes, the more exciting and powerful the connection. Lee and Porter fall in love. McLarin might have ended the story there, with Porter triumphant and Lee transformed, but Meeting of the Waters has barely begun.
Love does not conquer all; it only makes things more complicated. Lee keeps her relationship with Porter a secret from her closest friends and family, who know her as a stubborn supporter of black solidarity. When she shares the secret with friends, or when friends discover the truth, Lee is at pains to explain herself. She struggles to justify her feelings for Porter, to herself and to others, and she can't help but feel she's betrayed her own.
Lee never fully trusts Porter's feelings for her, and it shows. She picks fights with him, questions his politics, and pushes him to think about how he would feel escorting a little "mocha" daughter to school. Her preoccupation with race perplexes and worries Porter. But that's because he utterly fails to understand what Lee feels she sacrificed to fall in love with him in the first place.
Only when it dawns on him that they are headed for marriage does Porter begin to wonder what, exactly, he wants. Instead of confronting his doubts, he proposes, suddenly, and Lee accepts. Then, just when things seem to be on track, Porter jumps ship, unable to face the future he claimed--indeed, insisted--he wanted.
In the last half of Meeting of the Waters, McLarin's wonderful cast of supporting characters comes to the fore, and both Porter and Lee discover details about their respective families that change, in part, their view of themselves and about the assumptions they've made. It's a humbling lesson for the headstrong two. It's also a lesson for everyone about the nature of truth, as well as our perception of it, and how we arrange the details in our lives to fit those truths we choose to believe.
McLarin's style is light and readable, and her agenda, while not at all insistent, is not hidden below the surface. But Meeting of the Waters will make any careful reader think. In the end, it stands out not because it answers any questions or seeks a greater truth, but because it forces both Porter and Lee to discern when race is an issue, and, just as importantly, when it is not.
Guckenberger '93, former fiction editor of The Atlantic Monthly's online journal Atlantic Unbound, is a case writer for Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.