In her novel, The Wide Circumference of Love, Marita Golden depicts a marriage that many couples might envy. Diane and Gregory Tate have been loving partners to each other for over 30 years. They raised two children together. They’re both respected in their professions, he as an architect and she as a family court judge, and they have deep roots in the black community of Washington DC. There have been tough times—a battle with cancer for Gregory, a struggle with tragic family history for Diane, a distant relationship with their adult son Sean—but they face these challenges together, helping each other through with a combination of toughness and tenderness. Golden emphasizes the strength of their bond, writing from Gregory’s perspective, “Together. Not until Diane had he known the real meaning of the word. Marriage wasn’t a contract. It was a bond of caring. Caring. Another word she had made him know, deep, inside and out.” Yet Gregory’s diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease shakes this strong partnership to its core.
Golden made her debut in 2005 with Migrations of the Heart, a memoir concerning her marriage to a Nigerian man and the question of cultural identity that she encountered while living in Nigeria for four years. She is now the author of sixteen works of fiction and nonfiction and a co-founder of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, a national organization dedicated to supporting Black writers in all stages of their careers. She received the 2002 Distinguished Service Award from the Authors Guild, and the Award for Fiction from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association for her novel, After, the story of a black police officer who shoots and kills an unarmed young black man during a routine traffic stop. Golden has spent her career chronicling African American experience, and continues this work by taking Alzheimer’s disease as a subject. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, black people are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as whites. Golden is clearly passionate about this issue. She has reported on the disparity in The Washington Post, and in the acknowledgments of The Wide Circumference of Love she describes the book as “one that I was literally ‘called’ to write.”
Gregory Tate’s symptoms manifest in small ways, as he struggles to meet his responsibilities at work and gets lost in neighborhoods he’s known for years. He hides his memory failures from everyone—even from Diane—for as long as he can, but the situation soon overwhelms his ability to control it. Golden fearlessly narrates Gregory’s decline, never shying away from the ugly aspects of the disease. She describes a moment when Gregory’s daughter, Lauren, finds him urinating in his bedroom, “staring in wonder at his flaccid penis, which he was shaking up and down to dislodge the final drops as they fell onto the carpeted floor.” Early in the novel, Golden brings the realities of living with Alzheimer’s vividly to life by describing the nighttime routine Diane uses to protect herself from Gregory and to protect Gregory from himself: unplugging the microwave and the stove, locking the drawer that contains sharp knives, punching in a security code that locks the front door, and finally locking herself in her bedroom. As these actions accumulate, the reader viscerally understands the impossibility of Diane’s position as she struggles with the decision to move Gregory into a memory care facility.
While Gregory’s battle with Alzheimer’s is the primary focus of the book, The Wide Circumference of Love also features a host of subplots and additional themes. Golden shifts back in time to describe the tragedy that marred Diane’s childhood and to narrate Gregory and Diane’s courtship. She touches on Diane’s self-doubt, when her darker skin and lower class background made Diane question whether or not she was a worthy partner for Gregory and whether she could meet the expectations of his upper class family. Golden also delves into the lives of Diane and Gregory’s children. Over the course of the novel, their daughter Lauren falls in love, gets pregnant, breaks up with her boyfriend, and begins raising her son as a single mother, while their son Sean works as a contractor and settles into domestic life as a husband and step-father. This is a lot to fit into just under three hundred pages, and as a result, the book sometimes feels crowded. Juxtaposing the first flirtatious conversations between Lauren and boyfriend Gerald with Lauren’s agony at watching her father’s decline helps the novel feel true to the chaotic realities of life, but it can also induce a feeling of emotional whiplash.
Golden has a knack for evoking the details of family life. Like a living room full of children’s toys, the novel is strewn with the birthday parties and gatherings, the photo albums and mementos that help bind families like the Tates together. These details accumulate, helping the Tates to come alive as a family while also tying together the themes of memory, family, and identity. When Gregory takes his first steps towards a diagnosis for his Alzheimer’s, he tells his brother, “All we are is memories, Bruce. That’s all we are. Even more than flesh and blood.” By filling the book with so many scenes and details of family, Golden raises the compelling question of who we become when we no longer remember our connections to the people in the photo albums, when our families, like Gregory’s family, have become “diplomats from a region beyond reason or dreams.”
Throughout her prolific career, Marita Golden has reached a wide audience with her writing about black identity, the intersection of the personal and the political, and, above all, the resilience of the black family in America. In The Wide Circumference of Love, she shows remarkable empathy for all four members of the Tate family as they struggle, make mistakes, grieve, support each other, and eventually learn how to thrive. She presents a detailed portrait of a family doing what any family in this all-too-common situation must do: “To dive into the freezing waters of all this loss and somehow reach the surface, step onto the shore, and stand shivering but strong.”