Getting It Right
Karen E. Osborne
Akashic Books, 5/22/2017
280 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by Eshani Surya
Two sisters, damaged by the same father. Two racial identities, forever at odds with each other. Two stories that intertwine for a brief two-week period at the end of spring. In Getting It Right, Karen E. Osborne writes from the alternating perspectives of Kara and Alex, two women who share a father and little else.
Kara, half-black and half white, was abused and raped in the foster-care system. In present day, she wrestles with trauma and toxic entanglements with her lover. Meanwhile, Alex, white, privileged, grew up in Worth’s home. Her struggles are centered on family pressures: a father who never gives enough, a neurotic and judgmental mother, and full sisters who she needs to keep afloat. When Worth suffers a massive heart attack, he asks Alex to find Kara so he can reunite with her—and so Kara and Alex finally meet.
Despite Kara and Alex’s genetic links, their racial divide constantly destabilizes their relationship. Partway through the novel, Kara asks Alex: “Do you have any black friends?” Alex defensively replies that she does, but then realizes that her only black friend was a roommate in college. Alex’s disconnect from Kara’s world is once again evident when she visits Harlem. While waiting for a cab, she tells one of Kara’s friends that she was “starting to panic”—because her conception of Harlem is an unsafe, worrisome area.
As Alex tries to dismantle her discriminatory thought processes, Kara finds herself re-living her rape in nightmares and flashbacks. The closer she gets to her father, the more she realizes she has been let down by those who were supposed to protect her. Here, readers understand the difference between Alex and Kara. Many of Alex’s internal hang-ups come from learned racism; Kara’s hardships are due to external abuse by others. Both are harmful, and yet Kara’s pain feels much more immediate.
In an ideal novel these two journeys would command equal interest from the reader—but Kara’s chapters are more stimulating. Alex is a less sympathetic character due to her motivations and her privilege. Often, Alex is seen looking for Kara to fulfill her father’s wishes, and that aim takes precedence over a legitimate wish to see Kara as a real person to whom she can be close. Plus, her blatant prejudices are grating, a frustratingly mainstream perspective moored in her moneyed lifestyle, relying on stereotyping and exclusionary behaviors.
Getting It Right acknowledges its interest in Kara through its structure. The book begins with the funeral of Kara’s rapist. It ends with Worth’s. Thus the novel opens and closes with two of the most painful parts of Kara’s life dying. Though Alex is present at the last funeral, it is ultimately the mirroring of Kara’s abusive paternal figures that resonates. The question from the first funeral—can Kara overcome her pain—is answered through her actions at the second, and through that answer, the trajectory for the rest of Kara’s life is realigned. Alex learns much about herself and her family, but the novel does not suggest that her future will be shaped as obviously by the preceding events.
Osborne has created a compelling story of women trying to move past the bondage of their upbringing. We are left wondering, what does it mean to make amends? Is redemption possible? And, in a story that also concerns itself with understanding variations of love, are Worth’s actions loving? After all, both Kara and Alex acknowledge that Worth’s capacity to love is limited—in his hospital room, Alex even reminds him: “You didn’t love any of us enough.” This is a novel that opens many doors, but its many focuses sometimes detract from its ability to delve into larger questions. Still, Getting It Right is absorbing and pushes at understanding race, family bonds, and trauma.