When I was reading Laura McBride's newest novel, 'Round Midnight, I was struck by the idea that an era's shame may change or shift with time. With each generation, it seems, a secret forms in a moment with a choice made; a child born with mixed skin, a love affair, an accident that results in death. I think women, especially mothers, understand this—they keep the family's sins, often in silence in a world that doesn't allow the force of their love to be fully known.
McBride, who teaches composition at the College of Southern Nevada, writes what she knows well: what it's like to live in America's playground. Her first book, We Are Called to Rise, also explores different people living in different spaces and cultures in Las Vegas. In her sophomore novel, McBride writes of four women who are connected not only by an aging casino, but also by their secrets. June, Honorata, Engracia, and Coral weave in and out of each other's stories, showing glimpses of a choice, a moment in time where love was worth the shame, the burden. And each, as they learn more about each other, sheds a bit more of her secret.
McBride's prose is straightforward, flowing, with sections dedicated to each of the four women. 'Round Midnight is not a difficult read, but it it did take me right into the story and keep me there. The book is structured around four women, each of different generations and backgrounds. If there is a main character, it's June Stein, a sexy Brooklyn girl who divorces her young husband and flees to Vegas in the post-WWII beginning of the town. With a new husband and a young son, she works hard to build their casino El Capitan, enticing talent that launches it to fame. But then, she falls in love with a black man in an era when non-whites lived outside of town and weren't allowed in casinos. Her husband seems to know, but when she starts to show a growing belly, she wonders. Whose baby does she carry?
The baby, a beautiful girl, is born and June holds her for three days before her husband whisks the child away forever. In the ensuing years, June becomes a casino matriarch as Las Vegas grows up around the Midnight Room. But underneath her cool demeanor, she hides deep grief and longing for the baby, knowing that society would never approve of her love. June's devastation and years of despair are almost tangible as she wonders where her daughter is.
The other three characters, compared to June, each read like an extended montage, which left me wishing for more. It's as if June (and her casino, of course) is the gravity of the story and the other planets shine here and there. Honorata, a mail-order bride from the Philippines, finds herself in a loveless marriage with an American man who calls himself Jimbo. He loves to gamble and eventually takes Honorata to Vegas in 1992, where she wanders around El Capitan aimlessly. She drops a token in a slot machine, trying to avoid her husband and their hotel room. The machine starts to blare—she is a winner! The prize money is hers alone and she is finally able to imagine life on her own terms.
Engracia is an undocumented maid who is struggling to survive as a single mother in 2010. Her son, born just after she crossed into the US, is kind and generous. But Engracia is fearful, worried about his father who was taken by immigration. They flee to Vegas, where she works as a maid for Honorata and for El Capitan.
Coral is a beautiful biracial woman who wonders where she belongs. She doesn't look as dark as the family who raised her, and besides, she's known all her life that she was abandoned on her adopted mother's doorstep. She falls in love with an Asian man and they create a family together while she looks for hers. Her neighbor in Vegas is Honorata, who she only suspects has a secretive past.
The four characters converge on what could be considered the fifth: Las Vegas. Shimmering, ever shifting, the city transforms from an experimental desert playground into a full-fledged metropolis. June, Honorata, Engracia, and Coral each make decisions based on love and longing and the city offers back different results. Sin City is indeed a place of heartache and sacrifices.
As a reader and a mother, I thought the juxtaposition of love and silence, of suffering for a secret so important, so full of love, that yet must be silenced, was powerful. In the vein of Elizabeth Strout (My Name is Lucy Barton, Olive Kitteridge), the stories are simply, maybe even slowly, told. Underneath, however, lies the strength of McBride's story. Love and the four women's decisions in a world that doesn't allow for the full strength of that love create a persuasive tale that propelled me to the very end. The stories in 'Round Midnight lie at the intersection of race and sex, of love and sacrifice. What happens when you fall in love with a man your culture shuns? What happens when you carry a shame nobody knows? How do you live and love knowing a mistake was made, a love never demonstrated?
We all wonder what could be different given the choices we’ve made. McBride expresses this about June’s story:
Because she had been wrong. She had risked Marshall's world for the love of a man who would not have loved her for life, but it was the world's cruelty, its inanity, that had amplified that mistake. It was the world that had put June and Del and Marshall and a little girl in Alabama in a hold they could not break…Once she had believed that the world could become new again, that the right people in the right place could make up any rules they wanted. And none of that was true. They had all paid the price. And, really, where was the moment that should have happened differently? Which was the choice that had set all the others in motion? And would a different choice have been the right one?
And in some way, June, Honorata, Engracia, and Coral's secrets shape their lives and those around them. And as each women (and in turn, the reader) discovers her connection to the others, burdens are lightened and revealed. In her old age, June reflects on what she wants most:
It doesn't seem too much to ask of a universe so vast, that the absolute be a little less absolute, a little more bearable, a little more as it really feels: that the people I love are still present, are still real, are still near me.