The Women of Brewster Place is a novel told in seven stories. Of the seven stories, six are centered on individual characters, while the final story is about the entire community. The primary characters and the title characters of each chapter are all women and residents of Brewster Place.
Brewster Place is a housing development in an unnamed city. It seems destined to be an unfortunate place since the people linked to its creation are all corrupt. Despite the secretive circumstances surrounding its development, Brewster Place survives for decades, offering a home to one new wave of migrants after another. The life history of Brewster Place comes to resemble the history of the country as the community changes with each new historical shift. Following the Civil Rights Era, Brewster Place inherits its last inhabitants, African-Americans, many of whom are migrants from the southern half of the United States. The stories within the novel are the stories of these residents.
The first and longest narrative within the novel is Mattie Michael’s. Mattie, along with several other characters, arrives in Brewster Place from her parents’ home in the South. Mattie leaves her parents’ home because she is pregnant by a disreputable man named Butch Fuller. Mattie decides to move to the North at approximately the same time in history as the Great Migration. Living away from home with a new baby, Mattie takes a job working in an assembly line. She works long hours and is forced to live in a dilapidated building. After a rat bites her child, Mattie decides to find a new home. While walking with her baby, she runs into Ms. Eva Turner, an old, kind, light-skinned African-American woman who takes her into her home and refuses to charge her rent. After Ms. Eva dies, Mattie purchases the house and remains there to raise her son, Basil.
Basil grows up to be a troubled young man who is unable to claim responsibility for his actions. One night, he kills a man in a bar fight and is arrested. Mattie uses her house for collateral, which Basil forfeits once he disappears. Mattie, after thirty years, is forced to give up her home and move to Brewster Place.
Mattie’s childhood friend, Etta Johnson, joins Mattie at Brewster Place. After a long life of running from one man to the next, she has arrived at Mattie’s, hoping to find some stability. Mattie takes her to church, where Etta meets Reverend Woods. She is taken by his looks, wealth, and status, but after sleeping with him, she realizes it was all just a fantasy and that he wanted only sex. Etta leaves feeling broken, but her spirit is restored once she finds out that Mattie has stayed up all night waiting for her.
Kiswana Browne is different from all of Brewster Place’s other residents in that she has chosen to live there voluntarily. Raised in the affluent community, Linden Hills, Kiswana dropped out of college to live in Brewster Place, where she believes she can effect real social change in the black community. Kiswana is nervously waiting her mother’s first visit to her rundown studio apartment. Once her mother arrives, the two women have several short arguments that culminate in Kiswana calling her mother a “white-man’s nigger.” Kiswana’s mother responds by explaining the origin of Kiswana’s real name, Melanie, and the pride she has in her heritage. Before leaving, she secretly gives Kiswana enough money to have a phone line installed.
Lucielia Louis Turner, also known as Ciel, is the granddaughter of Ms. Eva. Lucielia grew up with Mattie and her son, Basil. Now grown, Lucielia has a daughter, Serena, with a man named Eugene. Eugene, in addition to constantly leaving Lucielia, also treats her and their daughter terribly. After complaining about his lack of opportunities, Eugene indirectly gets Lucielia to abort what would have been their second child. Shortly afterward, however, he comes home to say that he’s found a new job in Maine and must leave right away. His lying is obvious; he’s simply determined to leave. While Lucielia and Eugene are fighting, Serena chases a roach into an electric socket with a fork. She is electrocuted and dies, leaving Lucielia nearly lifeless with grief. Following the funeral, Mattie is the one who begins to release Lucielia’s enormous grief by rocking and bathing her until she falls asleep crying.
As a child, Cora Lee was obsessed with babies, and this obsession continues when she is an adult. Beginning in her sophomore year of high school, she has one child after another, almost all with different men. She lives in a filthy apartment, and her children are terribly neglected, since she can only care for them while they’re infants. One day, Kiswana finds one of Cora Lee’s children eating out of a garbage can. She tries to help Cora Lee by inviting her to a production of a Shakespeare play being staged in the park. Cora Lee is so moved by Kiswana’s brief appearance that she takes interest in her children. She cleans them and the house in preparation for the play. At the play, the children and Cora Lee are all touched by the performance. By the end, Cora Lee begins to imagine a better future for her children. She kisses them all goodnight. However, when she goes to her own bed, there’s a nameless man waiting for her. She drops her clothes and goes to bed with him.
Lorraine and Theresa are the only lesbian residents of Brewster Place. The residents fear Lorraine and Theresa, even though they are a loving and considerate couple. One resident in particular, Sophie, watches their every move and spreads rumors about their behavior. Lorraine is hurt by the judgmental responses of her neighbors. Theresa, however, claims not to care what people think or say. Lorraine tries to incorporate herself into the community by attending Kiswana’s tenants’ association meeting, but there, Sophie attacks her for her sexuality. She leaves in tears, and Ben, the oldest resident and the janitor of the complex, consoles her by taking her to his apartment and telling her the story of his daughter and wife. Ben’s daughter was indirectly led into prostitution by her parents, who refused to do anything about the fact that she was being forced to sleep with their white landlord.
Lorraine gains confidence from her burgeoning relationship with Ben. After a fight with Theresa, Lorraine goes to a party on her own. Afterward, instead of coming straight home, she goes down a dark alley. She is confronted by a group of young men who had earlier insulted her because of her sexuality. They gang rape her and leave her for dead. Lorraine manages to get up just as the sun is rising. She stumbles down the alley and sees Ben. She grabs a brick and crushes his skull with it.
Following Ben’s death, Mattie has a dream that the rain that has drenched Brewster Place since Ben’s murder has suddenly stopped in time for the block party planned by the tenants’ association. The rain eventually returns during the party, and everyone except the women run for shelter. The women believe that the wall in front of which Ben died still has blood on it, so they begin to frantically tear it apart, brick by brick. Mattie wakes to a beautiful sunny day. In the end, all of the residents of Brewster Place are forced out, and the block is condemned. Brewster Place, abandoned, lives on only in the hopes and memories of the women who once lived there.