A Matter of Control
- By DeMisty D. Bellinger
Toxic relationships abound in Cherish Farrah, but the rub is not knowing which relationship to watch out for. Bethany C. Morrow’s second novel for adults addresses classism and racism, as well as families and friendships. It’s a slow burn from page one and ends in discomfort for all.
Like Mem, Morrow’s first novel, Cherish Farrah is beautifully written, with poetic language and passages full of vivid, intricate imagery. Unlike Mem, her newest novel puts race in the forefront. Cherish and Farrah are two Black teenage girls in a predominately white and very wealthy neighborhood. Cherish’s parents, Jerry and Brianne LePage Whitman, are white, and seem like the model modern North American couple. Brianne leans into being a mother of a Black girl child by understanding how to care for Cherish’s hair and how to meet her needs. They also treat her like royalty, resulting in her becoming what Farrah calls “white girl spoiled,” or WGS.
Farrah’s parents are Black. They recently lost their home to foreclosure because Nichole Turner, Farrah’s mom, lost her job. Nichole and Ben Turner are forced away from their modest house in the same development as the Whitman’s house and move to a rental in the city. To limit the interruption of her school year, the Turners leave Farrah at Cherish’s house for an extended stay.
The narrative opens with an elongated birthday celebration for Cherish, where she is lavished with gifts and getaways, culminating in an extravagant party. During a toast to his daughter, Jerry makes it clear to their distinguished guests that Farrah is as much a part of the Whitman’s family as a sibling. He recounts to the crowd that when the two girls were very young, Cherish hurt herself at a building site that Jerry Whitman was overseeing. In a show of solidarity, Farrah injured herself, too, and both girls were rushed to the hospital for tetanus shots. This childhood demonstration of sisterhood hinges on ritual, made complete by spilling blood. When he finishes the girls’ origin story, Brianne says, “I just want you to know, Farrah, that we love you [. . .] You complete our family.”
We learn soon that Farrah perceives that childhood moment very differently than the Whitmans do. Farrah sees that moment—like her life—as an act of control. Cherish Farrah is told from Farrah’s point of view, and from the start it is hard to know how to feel about her. She challenges us in that first chapter, not fully a page long, saying she feels like a regular teenage girl, “when all I’m ever doing is pretending to be one.” So if she is not an “ordinary” teenage girl, what is she?
Farrah feels she has to always be in control, but we do not know what she has to be in control of: is it Cherish? Herself? Her house that sits for sale down the street? And what would she do if she were to lose that control? She tells us at the end of chapter one: “I won’t allow it. I would burn it all first.”
The Whitmans love Cherish, and Farrah sees this, so she uses their love of their adopted daughter to insert herself into their lives. Yet as the story moves on, we are led to wonder who is using whom. Farrah is just a child and her judgement is still limited. Nichole Turner says to her daughter, after Farrah gets violently ill at the Whitman’s house, that “I know you can’t see anything but the story you’re telling.” She goes on, saying that there is more to the story than she knows: “We know there’s always another narrative, and we don’t have the luxury of ignoring it, even if we think it suits our needs.” Here, we really start to wonder who is in trouble in the Whitman house.
Cherish and Farrah are not the only Black kids in their schools, though as far as we know, they may be the only Black girls. They are companions with two Black boys who have very similar lives to their own. Tariq is a young man with whom Farrah is enamored. He was adopted by a prominent judge, Judge Campbell, to raise as his own. Kelly is like a surrogate brother to Tariq and is Cherish’s love interest. Kelly isn’t adopted, but is fostered by the judge who took mercy on him in court, considering his age. However, Kelly is a roughneck who sees through guises Farrah initially misses.
At times, I found the repetition a little overwhelming, but the story and the writing were good enough to keep me going. I passed off the repetition of the word “control” as a leitmotif that was a product of Morrow’s poetic writing style as much as it was a component of the plot and character development. And having read Morrow’s first novel, I felt assured that I was in careful hands.
What works well in Cherish Farrah is the slow and harrowing tension, nearly as intense as Ha Jin’s Waiting. What also works is Morrow’s fresh look on race and transracial adoption. Through the Whitman and Turner families, she questions familiar love and friendship, and shows what is at stake in any relationship. She also shows how far a person is willing to go to hold on to an ounce of control. And if Farrah loses that control? She tells you what she will do on page one.