In one West Philadelphia neighborhood, families come together in celebration of unity and togetherness. Their block parties provide a union that serves as a backdrop for discovering the truth about themselves and the people they think they know.
Best friends Neet and Shay have depended on each other for most of their lives. However, their friendship will be tested when Neet becomes pregnant by one of the corner boys and Shay arranges an abortion that goes terribly wrong.
To Shay's horror, Neet is left unable to bear children and embraces her mother's esoteric yet sometimes impractical religious beliefs as punishment for her sins.
Meanwhile, Shay is left to struggle with her own growing maturity, the grief of losing a cherished friendship, and the disintegration of her parents' marriage. The two girls eventually choose their own separate paths.Leaving Cecil Street invokes those things that are most important -- family, friendship, and love.
Wistful, melodious, contemplative, McKinney-Whetstone's prose feels inspired by the tenor sax central to this story. It's the summer of 1969 on Cecil Street in West Philadelphia, and "even though the block had long ago made the transition from white to colored to Negro to Black is Beautiful, the city still provided street cleaning twice a week in the summer when the children took to the outside and there was the familiar smack, smack of the double-Dutch rope." Neet and Shay, 17-year-old neighbors, are as close as that double rope, and when Neet's illegal abortion goes terribly wrong, Shay is distraught especially since the procedure had been her idea. Shay's father, Joe, offers tender, paternal wisdom: "Be sad 'cause your best friend is going through a trauma right now, that's a clean, honest sadness. Don't dirty it up with a bunch of guilt that you choosing to feel." Dealing with his own sadness and guilt is harder. Joe loves his wife, Louise, but giving up the sax soon after they married turned out to be a bigger sacrifice than he realized, and getting straight with himself is a moral, sexual, musical adventure. McKinney-Whetstone's fourth novel (after 1999's Blues Dancing) is remarkable for the rich development of all its characters, notably Neet's mother, Alberta. She first appears as a bleak woman who torments Neet with a cruel religiosity, but her backstory of forced prostitution reveals more about her; her final sacrifice redeems her. Meanwhile, Deucie, the mother who abandoned Alberta, has sneaked into Joe and Louise's cellar to die. Joe plays his sax, harmoniously connecting and resolving the separate story lines.