The author's fine debut novel, Caucasia (1998), tells the story of a young girl struggling with her mixed-race heritage. The unnamed narrator in Senna's second novel also has a black father and a white mother, but this is a strained and peculiar tale, one that could be pitched as a tragic mulatto meets Psycho in Brooklyn. The narrator has left Berkeley for New York with a fellowship position at a prestigious magazine. Low on funds and all alone, she sublets a grungy Brooklyn apartment at the suggestion of a co-worker, Greta, a woman twice her age but of the same ambiguous racial identity. The apartment has a very bad vibe as the absent tenant's unpaid bills pile up and men leave obscene messages. Then Greta goes from being chummy and eccentric to pushy, possessive, and, finally, terrifying. Senna's strung-tight and relentlessly creepy novel features some ludicrous plot elements, but it is suspenseful, and the anguish her vividly realized mixed-race characters feel when confronted with hostility from both ends of the racial spectrum is, sadly, all too authentic.
(review from amazon.com)
Symptomatic by Danzy Senna reminded me so much of Notes on a Scandal that I started to wonder which story influenced the other. Symptomatic predates the movie but who knows how source material can influence an artist. (See Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields for a book that deals with just this issue.)
Symptomatic is the story of a young woman, on a writing fellowship and alone in New York for the first time, who forms an unusual friendship with an older colleague, Greta. Greta becomes more possessive and controlling as the novel progresses, eventually forcing the narrator to break off the friendship. Sounds a lot like Notes on a Scandal so far. The "scandal" in Symptomatic if there is one, is that both the narrator and Greta are of mixed race and can pass as either black or white depending on how they choose to dress and to act. The black people they meet assume they are black and the white people they meet assume they are white. The narrator is not exactly sure where she fits in or where she wants to fit in and her friendship with Greta does not make the situation any easier, though Greta sees her as a kindred spirit, someone who knows what she is going through.
Symptomatic takes on the tone of a psychological thriller early on. There is clearly something wrong with Greta from the beginning, but the narrator tries to convince herself and her readers that things are okay. The events of the novel, both those Greta reacts to and those she initiates, lead us to conclude that Greta is unbalanced well before the narrator finally ends their friendship. What happens in the end, seems to come out of left field to me, but you can decide for yourself. Overall, I found the issues of identity to be very interesting, not ones I had ever considered before, and the psychological suspense to be fairly gripping.
So even with an ending that was a little too Fatal Attraction for my taste, I'm giving Symptomatic by Danzy Senna four out of five stars.