Book Review: Lessons Before Dying Vol. 1 : Relationships
Book Reviewed by Tiffany M. Davis
Leonard Jenkins II's first book, Relationships (Volume I): Lessons Before Dying, is a tale of love (finding it, losing it, keeping it) set against an background of dying and death.
Theloneus Cole is a model for a popular clothing line and lives a stereotypical model's life: fancy hotels and villas, champagne and strawberries, first-class seats. He meets Dre online in a chat room. Their subsequent face-to-face meeting and relationship sets the platform for the rest of the book. As Theloneus jet-sets across the globe we are introduced to the other members of his family: his father Sterling (’Sweet’) Cole; Uncle Jacob (’Jay’) the physician; AnTony the twinlike cousin; Granny; and supporting members Traci (AnTony's fianc’e) and Pamela (Uncle Jay's psychiatrist). Each member (with the exception of Traci and Pamela) gets at least one chapter in which to express themselves and their feelings surrounding the illness and eventual death of Sterling, an event that is intended to reinforce family bonds.
The book seems to borrow heavily from the works Invisible Life and B-Boy Blues, vacillating between the writing styles and subject portrayal of both works without finding a comfortable middle ground. As the book progresses the parallel with B-Boy Blues becomes more obvious, especially in the personalities of Dre and Theloneus and the use of the letter ’z’ as a replacement for the letter ’s' in plural words. The descriptions of Theloneus's high-roller lifestyle are overstated and take away from the plot; again, the comparison to Invisible Life (in the character of Raymond) is brought to mind. Likewise, the Biblical references from pp. 60 onward are very obvious and heavy-handed. The inclusion of both the track training and Cole men reunion itineraries is awkward and did not add to the story at all. I did like the setup of a chat room as a meeting place. This is nicely done and refreshing. I also like the use of interchanging italics and regular font to show conversation.
Character development and sustainment are lacking in this novel. Dre is the book's most likeable character, and I would have liked to see more of him. Theloneus's character becomes increasingly more irritating as the book progresses, as his prissiness and pretentiousness are put on display. The use of scientific references in his everyday speech is not only irrelevant to the plot of the book but also shows Theloneus's intelligence in an overdone way. It is already stated that Theloneus had a degree in chemical engineering and there is no need to reiterate. Uncle Jay's character is rather dry; his chapter is not engaging at all. AnTony's character is unnecessary and his chapters leave much to be desired. I do not understand the end of the book; I know of no patient/client relationship that begins in such a strange manner. For a man of Uncle Jay's supposed intelligence, it should not have taken him that long to figure out what is going on. A two-year old could have figured it out.
The planned focus of the book, Sterling, is not so much a focus as a glaring distraction. His illness and death are very out-of-place and seem to happen rather quickly. The book seems to be more about the relationship between Theloneus and Dre than about any lessons, dying or otherwise, from Sterling or anyone else. I would have liked to see more of his day-to-day struggles with his disease as well as his alleged atonement for his past. His ’Lessons 4 Living’ are relevant but lack a forceful delivery.
The lack of editing of this book is a secondary source of dissatisfaction and one of the downfalls for self-published authors. For example, phrases are misused. I looked up the term ’plutonic’ (where the author meant to say ’platonic’)in a dictionary; ’plutonic’ actually refers to something of deep igneous or magmatic origin, such as rock or water. There are many run-on and lengthy sentences and strangely used punctuation throughout the novel. There are also misspellings (the correct spelling of the airport in France is ’DeGaulle’) which could have been easily avoided. Perhaps the most disappointing discovery is the lack of research into the disease that eventually kills Sterling. The symptoms of sclerosing cholangitis (i.e., rapid weight loss, vomiting of blood) that are listed in the novel are not consistent with those listed by the American Liver Foundation and the Mayo Clinic. The symptoms that Sterling is shown as having are more in line with cancer or AIDS. The average person reading this novel would not pick up on this detail; however, it is always safe to err on the side of credibility.
There are some signs of promise in Mr. Jenkins II's first novel. Hopefully this promise will be more prominent in his next one.