Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)
ABOUT FACE, A CLEVER TITLE THAT encompasses this book’s themes, profiles Ruth, a middle-aged successful executive in a cosmetics corporation. Ruth had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal and frequently turns her face to the past reminiscing about innocent times. She is caught in the dilemma of fulfilling her talent on the business battlefield, while also longing to be of service to others. To add to her mid-life crisis, her husband, David, decides to retire from teaching. Ruth is confronted with the reality of aging, but is reluctant to step down from her career platform. She incorporates her own conflicts on the aging process by launching a new cosmetic line for mature women. She is inspired by the African masks on her office wall.
Were they telling her that there were many ways to be beautiful, the Dogon way,The Bakota way, the Chi-Wara way? That American women can be beautiful in different ways, too?
Though her product line promises to be successful, the internal corporate politics she struggles through keeps her questioning the value of her profession.
Enter her closest Peace Corps buddy, Vivian, with her husband, Carlos. They all knew each other in Senegal, but their life paths diverged. Vivian and Carlos devote themselves passionately to charitable causes, live a bohemian life style, and make no bones about their loathing of corporate people like Ruth, and seemingly complacent people like David. Vivian designs her own clothes to fit her ample figure, and Carlos is bombastic about his world views. In spite of personality clashes, however, they manage to work their way through conversations fraught with tension to a mutual understanding and acceptance, trying to regain the youthful friendship they treasured in Senegal.
Ruth experiences a revelation about her problematic profession when she gets the idea of establishing a business based on Vivian’s clothing designs that might appeal to the segment of older women of “traditional build.” She also visualizes creating a foundation that would give a percentage of profits from this new business to a charitable cause. Carlos, who disdains business, agrees to run the foundation. This project proves to be the catalyst for the four friends’ new partnership. They all do an “about face” and change their lives, working together with disadvantaged women and their children to produce clothes in a community atmosphere, recreating, in a way, their lives as Peace Corps Volunteers in an African village where “. . . everyone knows his purpose in life and has a whole village full of love.” Ruth becomes “. . . an entrepreneur for the world, starting a business when it’s time to retire.” She comes full circle.
It felt like being in the subway, going around a curve between stations, and seeing the back car when you’re in the front. Or maybe it was seeing the front when you’re in the back. Something about time collapsing.
Reading this novel, and being more in the mold of a Vivian than a Ruth, I could not feel a lot of sympathy for Ruth’s power struggles within the corporate world, so I was glad when she got out. Having read many Peace Corps memoirs, I found About Face unusual, in that it deals not with the village experience, but with what happens years later, after one returns to “the real world,” and pursues a career that may or may not be affected by “the other world.”
Carole Howard was not an RPCV. Her husband Geoffrey was a Volunteer in Senegal from 1963 to 1965; and then on staff in Ivory Coast, Togo and again Senegal from 1972 to 1975. But she “lived the life, and hung out with/took care of Volunteers.” I imagine that writing this novel was an “about face” in her life. Writing is hard work, and she is an intrepid, perfectionist writer who, I sensed, thinks about every word she puts to paper. (No editing required in this book, thank you.) The photo on the back cover shows her crossing a rope bridge in some jungle, an indication of the courage and self-confidence that it takes to live the Peace Corps life, work in corporate America, change careers instead of retiring, and write a good book.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. She wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, (amazon.com/Publishamerica) and is working on a memoir of Haiti.