By Terri Schlichenmeyer
One hundred sixty-three.
That’s how many friends you have on social media and you know most of them, one way or another. There are colleagues on your list, and cousins, friends, and a guy you don’t really remember meeting. You connected to them all somehow and you count them as friends or more. As in the new memoir, “Miss Chloe” by A.J. Verdelle, keeping in touch with them is always worth it.
When her first novel was in its final stages before release, A.J. Verdelle sent out a few precious copies to trusted sources, and one of them made its way to a place she didn’t expect: author Toni Morrison got it, and publicly said she liked the book.
For Verdelle, this was one of those pinnacle-of-life moments. She grew up reading Morrison’s work – sometimes at an age that was “too early” – and to know that her idol read her book was more than Verdelle could dream of.
Even better was that this chance encounter with a book turned into a friendship.
The great author encouraged Verdelle in her writing career and they shared a deep love of language, often laughing over wordplay. Morrison had worked in a library when she was young; Verdelle had worked in a library, and she was a teacher at Princeton. Morrison helped Verdelle to understand how best to mentor her students at Princeton; this, too, and their love of books, allowed the two women to bond.
Over the years, they shared lunches, dinners, and “events in her honor.” They spoke “freely” about “Black people and Black women and Black history and the ways we plotted and planned and managed to press forward.”
And yet, their relationship wasn’t without its problems. There were “two and a half spats,” says Verdelle, perhaps because Morrison could be cold, unkind, overly-opinionated, desirous, and demanding.
“You had to know Morrison’s work as a whole to be her friend,” Verdelle said. “she would squint at you, and dismiss you, if you came lame. She was exacting. She had high standards. She did not suffer fools.”
Based on the affectionate name that author A.J. Verdelle called Toni Morrison due to Morrison’s birth name, “Miss Chloe” is a fan’s book, pure and simple. It’s beautifully-written, a love letter to a friendship and to books and reading, and it’s a wonderful peek into the lives of two writers – one, up-and-coming; one, sadly, gone.
And yet, reading it is not without struggles.
The three facets that make this book good also make it hard to stay with. Verdelle’s words are impactful and graceful, but her narrative tends to wander awhile before pivoting back to any individual point, which can be jarring. As for the friendship, Verdelle’s a little too eager to laud hers with Morrison, even when Morrison was mean to her.
Overall, “Miss Chloe” is for Morrison fans, mostly, and it will likely appeal to some writers, particularly those who pen Black women’s fiction. For anyone who’s not much into these things, this is a book to de-friend.