Although the title of Liane Moriarty’s book is The Husband’s Secret, many more secrets abound in this book about responsibility, guilt, culpability, and consequences.
The initial secret is contained within a letter, addressed from Jean-Paul to his wife, Cecilia, to be opened only in the event of his death. She finds the letter in with some filed tax papers, and though she itches to open and read it, she reluctantly decides that this would be too great an invasion of her husband’s privacy. She admits to him that she found it, only to be somewhat stunned by the extremity of his reaction when he learns that the letter still exists—he thought it was lost or destroyed long ago. He tries to make light of it (he wrote it right after the birth of their first daughter, now a teenager, and claims it was in the emotional heat of the moment), and asks her not to read it and to give it back to him. But something happens that makes her no longer willing to respect that wish, and all the rest of the consequences of this tale about three families follow.
I had some initial trouble with how, exactly, these three stories would interlock; even though they lived in the same town, there were generational differences, outside influences, and a lot of time and space between some of the events, so the book was hard going for the first part. But after the secret is revealed and everything begins to tie in, I read with increasing fascination and momentum. Part of the fascination was that I did not expect that to be the secret. When you think about something that one spouse is keeping from another, your mind automatically goes to the usual stories: past infidelity, Johnny is not your son, I’m leaving you for the pool boy, etc. But this secret is BIG, and affects so many more people than just the wife to whom it is revealed that it makes the story extra compelling. And of course, the minor secrets people hold that either directly or indirectly impact their relationship with and reaction to the big secret further that suspense.
The particular ways in which all of the characters’ lives entwine one with another is the main appeal of this book, and bring you to various conclusions that are then offset by a catalogue of what-ifs in the epilogue: What if this had happened that way instead of this, what if this person hadn’t been in this place at that time, what if anyone had been able to show a little restraint at the proper moment, etc. That is the core of this book, those what-ifs, and they lead you to look at your own laundry list, past and future, and try to decide (about the events of the book and your own list) whether they are black, white, or gray.
Weirdly, although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, part of me would have preferred other stories to grow out of it. Because all three family dramas were sublimated to the central event, some felt incompletely told. The story of Will, Tess, and Felicity, for instance, had its own trajectory that I wish the author had either explored further here or turned into a separate novel. I really wanted to know what happened there! So far, no joy, but perhaps Moriarty will finish their story someday?
Parenthetically, I’ll say that I am not a fan of the “floofy” covers they put on Moriarty’s books. They definitely downplay the narrative.
Memory and time
About her book What Alice Forgot, Liane Moriarty says the following:
I had always wanted to write a story about time travel but I found the logistics made my head explode.
Then I read a story about a woman in the U.K. who lost her memory and behaved like a teenager – she didn’t recognize her husband or children. I realized that memory loss is a form of time travel.
So I came up with the idea of a woman, Alice, who loses 10 years of her memory. She thinks she is 29, pregnant with her first child and blissfully in love with her husband. She is horrified to discover
she is 39, with three children and in the middle of a terrible divorce. It’s like
the younger Alice has travelled forward
It’s 2008. Alice Love is 39 years old. She is at her spin class at the gym. She didn’t eat any breakfast or drink any water before she began the class, and as she begins to sweat, she becomes faint and falls off the bike, hitting her head quite hard on the way down.
These are all details that you find out later in the book. The opening scene is one of confusion—Alice opening her eyes to discover she is lying on a cold floor with a bunch of people staring at her, and not knowing where she is, why she is there, or what has happened. And when people start trying to explain it to her, she is more confused than ever. She remembers that she is pregnant with her first child, who she and her beloved husband Nick have nicknamed the Sultana (since that’s about the size of the fetus at this point). She doesn’t understand why she was at the gym, because she hates working out, and she is baffled by the thin and taut state of her body, since she remembers it as larger and softer. Once the hospital calls her contacts, she notices that her sister is acting weird around her, almost like a stranger, and when she calls Nick (who is for some reason on a business trip) to tell him she has had an accident, he yells at her and hangs up the phone. What in the world?
Alice has a temporary case of amnesia. She thinks it’s 1998. She doesn’t remember anything at all subsequent to that, including the fact that she now has three children and is in the midst of a nasty and bitter divorce. How is that possible? She and Nick are so happy! After a couple of days at the hospital trying to come to terms with all of this, she returns home to confront what was a ramshackle fixer-upper but is suddenly imbued with every single advantage Alice and Nick had daydreamed when they bought it. Her husband returns from his weekend with the three children, ready to drop them off as usual on Sunday night, and Alice is in a panic—she’s never cared for one child, let alone three, and hers are now actual little people, with personalities and phobias and quirks with which she is completely unfamiliar! She doesn’t know what to feed them, or the addresses of their schools, or that she’s supposed to drop Tom at swim class and take Olivia to her violin lesson—none of it rings the faintest bell. And Nick looks at her with anger and disgust, when all she longs to do is throw herself on his chest and cry.
Readers tell me that what they liked best
about this novel was how it made them
think about the choices they’d made and
wonder how their younger selves would
feel about the lives they are leading now.
This book is a journey of self revelation, but not just for Alice; because of her condition, she has suddenly gone back to being who she was 10 years ago, and all the people surrounding her must similarly take a look at who they have become in the decade she is missing. Alice discovers that she doesn’t much like many of the decisions she has made that have brought her to this point, and because she can’t remember her life, she busily goes about reversing some of them. This is my favorite part of the book, because her simple naiveté leads her to mend fences that she couldn’t and wouldn’t choose to attempt if she remembered why they were broken. The story is, indeed, a form of time travel, and at this point, I was actually rooting for Alice to remain contentedly in the past!
The book is by turns serious, looking at such subjects as infertility, infidelity, and bullying, and comical in its recounting of Alice’s mishaps as she flails around trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. It similarly challenges the reader to think about decisions made that have led to this point and to wonder—would I do things differently, if I could suddenly revise them?
Both an enjoyable and a rewarding read.
Charmed by books
After dwelling in darkness with Sharon Bolton for a couple of days, I felt the need for lighter fare. I initially chose these three books because of their titles and covers, which revealed they were all books about books. As an avid reader, I’m always looking for more of those!
The first one I read—The Book Charmer, by Karen Hawkins—also has the element of magical realism going for it. It did, in fact, remind me of Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, in some of its elements, notably the two sisters who are dumped at a young age for someone else to raise, and in the fact that books actually talked (maybe out loud or maybe just in her head) to one of the residents of the small town in which the story ultimately takes place.
It was, indeed, a charming book about books, about family and friends, about small towns and the very real dangers of their dying out in the face of progress. It also dealt delicately and accurately with the issue of Alzheimer’s disease.
I would have liked more about the growing-up years of sisters Grace and Hannah, and the parallel years of Sarah Dove, lucky seventh daughter (and the book charmer) of the Dove family of the town of Dove Pond. But after an introductory chapter about each,
we jump to present day when everyone is an adult, and proceed from there. Not that the “there” wasn’t a good tale, I just wanted a bit more of the back story.
I thought the portrayal of Grace was excessively curmudgeonly, although I could understand her point of view. But she could have relented a bit sooner in instances where people were actually trying to help or befriend her, or both.
I liked this book’s gentle quirkiness, and will probably seek out the author’s subsequent stories about the same town.
The next book I took up was
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman. Talk about your basic wish fulfillment!
At the beginning, given that you are a person who thinks like me, Nina has it all: A job in a cool bookstore, a lovely guest house lined with bookshelves filled with books, a companionable cat named Phil, and a busy schedule taken up mostly with book clubs and trivia contests.
Only child: check
Likes books better than people: check
Likes cats better than many people: check
Enjoys her work putting together readers with books: check
Likes her routine and doesn’t want to be dynamited out of it: check
Then, Nina discovers that the father she never knew has called her out in his will to receive some sort of legacy, thereby putting her in touch with a raft of unknown and unsuspected brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts and cousins…which is in one way kind of a dream come true for a wistful only child who has previously been an observer but not a participant in family life…and in another way kind of a nightmare for a self-sufficient, slightly anxious introvert.
Also, the team leader of one of the competing trivia teams in her league is showing definite interest in Nina…but it will never work out, because he’s not a reader. Oh well… But he IS good looking, and persistent, and maybe…no, definitely not. But…
You can guess how things play out from fairly early on in the book (obvious portents), you can see the “event horizon” clearly, but you’re so caught up in it you don’t really care. This is the ultimate feel-good book for the bookish and the romantic.
I didn’t think I’d be a fan, initially, of The Overdue Life of Amy Byler, by Kelly Harms, because of the whole martyrish deserted mom thing. I mean, I get it, and she had a perfect right, and I’ve been there as the deserted wife, although not with the mom thing piled on top of it; I just didn’t think I’d enjoy a book about it. But I did, quite a bit!
Amy is soldiering on as a single mother after being completely abandoned by her husband and partner, John. When the children were 12 and 9, John went to Hong Kong on a business trip, and never came back. Amy had to go back to work full-time as a school librarian, and scrape absolute bottom to keep her kids in their school and put food on the table. Not only did John desert them, he didn’t pay child support or communicate with any of them for three years. Small wonder that Amy harbors major resentment.
Then John comes back—because he misses his kids and wants to make things up to all of them. They all know that’s not possible, but Amy agrees (with some counseling by her friend, Lena) to give John a week with the kids, and she takes off for New York City on a part-professional, part-personal trip. The week stretches into a summer, and Amy finds herself at loose ends (and somewhat uncomfortable with it) as all her responsibilities are picked up by someone else.
I loved that the book included attendance at a librarian convention, accompanied by a presentation by the protagonist about a concrete idea (Flexthology) on how to promote reading to reluctant teen readers through choice and anonymity. This made the character feel solid and real, and made the subsequent events (even though they were more fanciful) seem plausible and possible. Her makeover (to be featured in a magazine article) by her publisher friend, Talia, was fun (and only a little patronizing). I adored Daniel, the “hot librarian,” and rooted for him despite Amy’s #momspringa (a play on the Amish Rumspringa) dates with other guys. Part of what kept the book going was the witty banter—Harms knows how to write dialogue.
These books all three definitely fit the bill when you’ve been reading a lot of brooding thrillers or books heavy on emotion and description—while there is still poignancy, these authors keep the tone light while exploring some serious issues. They are all three great additions to my rapidly growing “canon” of books-about-books-and-readers!
Big Little Lies
I hadn’t previously read anything by Liane Moriarty, although several librarian friends had recommended her to me, so I decided to start with Big Little Lies, since the TV series stars some of my favorite actors and I’d like to have read the book before embarking on that.
I didn’t know anything about the book, except that it’s classified by some as “women’s fiction,” a category title I have always found insulting. Joyce Saricks, readers’ advisory guru, defines women’s fiction as consisting of “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be dismissive and ghettoizing. When men were the primary writers of fiction, it was all just fiction, whether literary, mainstream, or genre-based. Why do we need to use condescending terminology that puts female writers in a “less than” category?
It is true that the three main protagonists of Big Little Lies are women with issues (some of them dark): Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. It’s also true that this is primarily a book about white privileged people whose children attend an exclusive school. But it’s ultimately a story of parents acting badly, and it features the real lives of children, teens, friends, husbands, wives, second wives, and exes. And the interplay between all these characters, primary and secondary, is smart and witty, making the book completely engaging.
It’s also suspenseful, given that the pivotal moment (which is mentioned at the beginning and then built up to in timed chapters) is a death at the annual Pirriwee Public School Trivia Night, an annual fund-raising event. You know what happens, but not to whom, nor how, nor why. There are small glimpses fed to you in the guise of gossip shared with an unknown interviewer by various secondary characters at intervals throughout the book, which lend further tension as some get it entirely wrong and others come perilously close to guessing secrets they’re not supposed to know.
I loved the way Moriarty sets up the story—the countdown to the trivia contest, the fragments of gossip and commentary, the glimpses into all the lives involved in the broader story. But I particularly loved the entire array of characters, both main and secondary. This is a quintessential example of a character-driven plot, and although its stated theme is suspense, the real content of the book lies in understanding every woman portrayed here. The character development is fresh, intuitive and nuanced, and doesn’t stop with the first few moments of set-up on their personalities, but portrays complex, flawed people with real issues. Moriarty is equally good at capturing the quirks and personalities of all the children involved, and she seasons serious interactions with moments of humor and even hilarity.
I didn’t figure out the climactic moment ahead of time, and honestly spent the second half of the book hoping passionately that she wouldn’t kill off any of the people in which I had invested so thoroughly!
I have put three more books by Moriarty on hold at the library.
Autism in fiction
A few years back, I read the book The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. At the time, I didn’t have what you would call a significant reaction to the book; it was more along the lines of “charming, funny, and enjoyable relationship fiction.”
I did comment in my notes on Goodreads that the protagonist, Don, put me in mind of an adult version of Christopher Boone, the kid from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon—I could see him growing up to be Don: precise, literal, frustrating, yet engaging in his innocence and bewilderment about the social norms that escape him.
Don Tillman, Australian genetics professor, is an odd duck. His lifelong difficulties with social rituals and situations have caused him to create an orderly, easily navigated life with a precise routine and little human contact. He does have a few friends, and one of them comments to him that he has many attributes that would make him a good husband. This sets Don, who has never gone on a second date, to thinking about how best he could find a partner for himself with the least amount of fuss. His conclusion is The Wife Project, a questionnaire he devises that he intends to submit widely (mostly via a dating site) to weed out the things he can’t abide and narrow his search to the perfect woman for him: no smokers, no vegetarians, no late people, no messy people…the list of what he doesn’t want far exceeds the list of what he does!
Rosie Jarman shows up at his door intending to ask for his assistance on a genetics project, but because she has been sent by his friend and mentor, Gene, Don thinks she is there in response to The Wife Project questionnaire, and asks her out. He is baffled when he discovers that she is a smoker, a drinker, perpetually tardy, and in no way his ideal woman. But when he questions Gene about her, Gene (with some suppressed mirth) says he threw her in as a “control,” and encourages Don to continue to see her. Don takes up the challenge of Rosie’s genetics project, and begins to learn that perhaps the ideal woman on paper isn’t the one for him.
Although it is obvious to other characters in the book that Don is “on the spectrum,” as it has become modish to say about degrees of autism, Don has not self-diagnosed as such. When he is asked by Gene to substitute for him at giving a lecture and the lecture turns out to be on Asperger’s Syndrome to an audience of children with Asperger’s and their parents, Gene’s wife, Claudia, a psychologist and also Don’s friend, asks him if, in preparing his notes, anything seemed familiar. Don seems baffled by her question and doesn’t arrive at the answer she is obviously implying.
A few readers’ reactions to this novel have been negative, because they felt it mocked or made fun of autistic people, but the book’s author has noted that when he wrote it, he didn’t research Asperger’s, and in fact had based Don on “people I met in physics, information technology and doing a Ph.D.” He follows up by adding, “Experts in the field assure me that Don has Asperger’s and that community says the same thing. It was not my intention to make light of Asperger’s, and the Asperger’s community…regards Don as typical but not stereotypical. He’s seen as a good role model; readers generally love him, and that’s a good thing for the image of ASD.”
Remembering how I had enjoyed this somewhat light but entertaining and thoughtful read, I was pleased to see that while I wasn’t paying attention, Simsion had written two follow-up novels, continuing Don’s and Rosie’s story, and I snagged both sequels from the library’s e-book collection as soon as I could get them.
The Rosie Effect picks up fairly soon after the events of the first book; Don and Rosie are married (sorry, that’s a spoiler, but you kind of knew how it would end, right?) and living in New York City; they both have satisfying work, and everything seems to be going according to plan, which makes Don feel happy and secure. Then an unexpected pregnancy throws everyone for a loop. Don had always agreed, in the abstract, that he would enjoy having offspring, but as far as he knew, birth control was in place and nothing along those lines would happen without a lengthy discussion and negotiation. Rosie, observing their friend Sonia’s struggles to conceive, realizes she isn’t young any more in terms of optimum child-bearing years, believes it could take some time to become pregnant, and “decides” to forget to take her birth control pills, resulting in an almost immediate “success.”
Don does his best to cope with this news, but approaches it with his usual lack of emotion, choosing instead to make lists of tasks and goals that need to be accomplished before the baby is born and setting about them in typical Don fashion, which is to say he almost immediately finds himself in trouble on every front. Meanwhile Rosie, who was happy as Don’s wife, begins to question what kind of father he will be able to be for their child, and as Don seems increasingly incapable of understanding the emotional commitment she needs, Rosie withdraws. Don will have to rein in his various projects and focus instead on his relationship with his wife and child, or all his good intentions will be for nothing.
I had a little trouble with the evolution of Don’s and Rosie’s relationship as a result of the pregnancy. Don continued to be himself; but Rosie, confronted with parenthood, had an extreme reaction to everything about him that she had previously found charming (if maddening). Her reaction seemed over the top, even for someone whose instincts were telling her to place the welfare of her child over the viability of her marriage. For the first time in their interactions, you see Rosie have as little emotional understanding of Don as Don has of Rosie, and it’s unsettling. But it’s a strong story over all, and with the help of their friends they are both able to attain clarity.
There is a considerable hiatus in years between the ending of the second book and the beginning of The Rosie Result; Don and Rosie’s son, Hudson, is now 11 years old. The family has returned to Melbourne, where both Rosie and Don are working full-time in their professions. It soon becomes clear, however, that one of them will need to suspend a busy schedule to give time and attention to their son, who is having trouble fitting in at school and needs more parenting. Coincidentally, Don does something that is typical (and without agenda) for him but which his students find offensive, and concludes that putting some distance between himself and this problem is congruent with his goal of tutoring Hudson in how to get by in a world that thinks you’re weird. Don quickly realizes that the best thing he can do for Hudson is to “outsource” some of this instruction to people with better social instincts than his, and the following year becomes a good example of a “village” raising a child.
In this third book, Simsion openly confronts the topic of autism; while its effects in Don’s life were duly noted in the first two, it is Hudson’s difficulties in school that bring the topic into focus, and Simsion uses the interactions of the Tillman/Jarman family with school administrators, teachers, and counselors, other parents and students, and their unusual group of friends to highlight various sides of the issue. He shows the prejudices that confront people who don’t fit in with perceived social norms, and specifically discusses the pitfalls that lie in allowing a child to be “diagnosed” with something that will follow them for the rest of their school career and beyond. Labeling and identity, both specifically with regard to autism but also in a wider sense, are prevalent themes, and the book directly questions people’s assumptions about autism.
There is a particularly effective scene in which Don and Rosie attend a panel discussion about autism, participated in by a mother who has taken every route—including intensive tutoring, medication, and behavior modification—to help her daughter conform to neurotypical norms, as well as an activist who maintains that autism is not a disease but an identity. Her example is that she doesn’t ‘have’ lesbianism, she is a lesbian; therefore, she doesn’t ‘have’ autism, she is autistic—it’s part of who she is, not something visited upon her that she needs to confront and conquer.
Far from turning the book into a polemic, I felt that this debate, fictionalized and exemplified by the relationships amongst the participants in the story, made it all the more compelling. It is particularly touching as Don, who is determined to make Hudson’s life better than his own by teaching him to cope with society’s expectations, comes to realize that perhaps his response isn’t the best one for Hudson, and that if Hudson can navigate his life by being himself, there may be more wiggle room in his experience than his father had assessed. While maintaining the gentle humor inherent in Don’s (and Hudson’s) misunderstandings of social norms that Simsion portrayed in the first two books, in this one the intensities of the relationships become truly heartfelt. The arc of this three-book story is completed with vastly more depth than one would expect from light, “relationship” fiction.
On the shore
In yesterday’s mail, I received my advance-order copy of Jenny Colgan’s new novel, The Bookshop on the Shore. Although I had just started reading another book, I promptly put it aside, because I was so in the mood for this book. I’d had a difficult week, and Colgan’s signature combination of can-do attitude with gentle romance plus her evocative setting (northern Scotland) were the required remedy.
This novel is not exactly a sequel to my favorite of Colgan’s books—The Bookshop on the Corner—since the protagonist is new. But it is set in the same locale, most of the characters from that book are here in a peripheral role, and Goodreads characterizes it as “Scottish Bookshop #2.”
Zoe is a young mother of a four-year-old son, Hari, who is practically perfect in every way—sweet, loving, smart, well-behaved. The only issue with Hari is that he doesn’t speak. Zoe has taken him to multiple specialists, all of whom conclude that there’s nothing wrong with him, and that he will “probably” speak when he’s ready. This worry is at the top of Zoe’s list, but is by no means the only problem with which she is dealing. She’s living in London in a tiny bed-sit in a bad neighborhood, working at a daycare job inadequate to pay her bills, and her ex-boyfriend, Hari’s father, is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy who’s more interested in making it as a deejay than he is in contributing childcare funds to support his son. When her landlord leaves her a rent hike notice, Zoe knows that she will at that point be truly beyond her means, so she appeals to Jaz for help, not expecting much but ever hopeful. Jaz disappoints, as usual, but fortunately the interaction results in a helping hand from an unexpected source.
Jaz’s sister is Surinder, Nina’s best friend from The Bookshop on the Corner, and she has just received a call from Nina, who is desperate to find someone to take over her business (she travels around rural Scotland selling books from a van converted into a mobile bookshop) during the rest of her pregnancy. Surinder sends her Zoe, with Hari in tow. But working in Nina’s business isn’t enough to keep Zoe afloat and also doesn’t provide her with a home, so Nina finds Zoe an evening-and-weekends job as a live-in au pair to the local “big house” family.
Zoe approaches her jobs with a will to succeed, but rapidly discovers that both are going to be uphill work. She hasn’t Nina’s gift for matching every customer with the right book, and the bottom line is making that obvious during her first weeks with the book van. And the au pair gig seems like a bigger nightmare than her horrible life in London, with three rude, uncooperative children who ominously refer to her as “Nanny Seven,” and a father who is obviously checked out and not coping. But with little other choice, Zoe has to seize her opportunities and make the best life she can for herself and her silent little son on the admittedly beautiful shores of Loch Ness.
This is a trademark delightful tale from Jenny Colgan that fulfills all the requirements her readers have come to expect. The characters are wonderfully delineated (particularly those of the three miscreant children, the curmudgeonly housekeeper Zoe and Nina refer to as “MacDanvers” after Rebecca, and Zoe’s son Hari), and the setting in rural Scotland is, as always, a major factor enriching the scenario with descriptions of nature that make the city dweller long to catch the next flight to Inverness. Colgan has the skill to engage the reader with the protagonist’s plight such that every challenge and triumph are taken personally. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it set me thinking again about whether a retirement in a rural setting would suit me better than my current situation as one of the million citizens of Los Angeles!
The only caveat I have, and I had it with the book’s predecessor, is calling the mobile book van a “bookshop” and depicting it on both covers as a stationary location! Don’t the publishers read their books? There has to be a better title for both books, and better artwork as well. But, I suppose that if you had called this one, for instance, “On the Shore,” where much of the action takes place (both the selling of books and the live-in nannying), it wouldn’t hook in all those readers who want a book about books and readers; and we are a big and focused readership. Oh, well….
Another flower book
In the course of writing my post “Flower power” a couple of weeks ago, I looked at a few lists of novels with flowers as their theme, and decided to expand my repertoire regarding the language of flowers by buying and reading The Flower Arrangement, by Ella Griffin.
In the midst of severe distress over the loss of a much-wanted child, Lara decides to leave her career as a graphic designer and open a shop she calls Blossom and Grow, in the heart of Dublin. Although, as her doubtful husband warns her, the work is backbreaking, the sourcing of the flowers challenging, and the hours long, the venture turns out well, and Lara loves her little jewel of a flower shop with its beautiful pink façade decorated with hand-painted trompe l’oeil ivy.
Like the protagonist in The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Lara has a special gift for putting together the right flowers with the right person (even when it’s by accident!), and this theme of people buying flowers for an apology, a declaration of love, a sick friend, a marker for a special day, or simply a spontaneous gesture carries the plot forward. Each chapter is titled with a different flower and its meaning, and there are delicately detailed descriptions of all kinds of blooms throughout the story.
This book probably falls into the category of “cozy romance,” or perhaps you could call it relationship fiction? It’s cleverly done, and is definitely the sum of its parts. Yes, I know that’s not the saying, it’s supposed to aspire to be more than the sum of its parts; but in this case it is appropriate and I’m not denigrating it—the parts do come together to make a whole.
I confess, however, that I was a little disappointed by the way the story evolves. In the beginning, I invested quite heavily in Lara’s tale, which is told first, and assumed that the entire book would be about her; instead, it consists of vignettes that, while tangentially connected to her, don’t necessarily reveal or forward her plotline. There is a central cast of characters played by her brother, her father, and other significant relationships, but then we branch out in turn to those characters’ relationships, and also check in on random people who are connected to the flower shop, it’s true, but sometimes by the thinnest of threads. The author does do a good job of weaving them into a cohesive story, but I simply wanted more Lara.
The one thing that tells against this being considered a romance is that you don’t get your traditional (requisite?) HEA (happily ever after) in the end. Although there are some happy tidings for various people, many loose ends are left, and not because there will be a sequel, I don’t think, but because the author simply wanted them that way. I always think I’m okay with open-ended books until I read one, and then, when I get to the last paragraph and realize my ultimate curiosity won’t be satisfied, I sulk. So this book’s ending made me just a little sulky! I don’t mean to say not to read it, however; it’s a charming, engaging story with a lot of heart, decent writing, great characterization, and an interesting story line.
I had two issues with the physical presentation of the novel: The first was the cover, which, while cute, doesn’t match the description of the shop (thus my little painting, above, to recall the theme of pink!). The second was the title of the book! I don’t understand why the author didn’t call it Blossom and Grow, after the shop; not only would it have been a more memorable title than The Flower Arrangement (which is so generic as to be forgettable, and I did several times when people asked me what I was reading!) but it actually better expresses what happens in the course of the story.
Perhaps Ella Griffin will see this and let us in on her reasoning.
The power of flowers
Because of an extraordinary amount of rain and snow this year, many parts of the country (mine included) have had a particularly colorful spring when it comes to both wildflower superblooms and the overflowing roses, peonies, and daffodils in cultivated gardens. Observing this bounty has caused me to take a look at some books, both fiction and nonfiction, that deal not only with the appearance but also with the language of flowers.
Although flowers and other plants have had symbolic significance for centuries, the full blossoming, if you will, of the use of flowers as symbols for emotions was in the approximate 75-year span of the Victorian Era in England. Restrictive social conventions prohibited direct expression through conversation between those whose interests were loverlike, so whatever was deemed unacceptable by etiquette to share openly was encoded in the giving of particular flowers or combinations of flowers to convey specific meanings. This practice became so commonplace that the language of flowers was christened “floriography.” The practice has also captured the imagination of various authors, who have used it as a vehicle to tell their stories. Among them:
The Language of Flowers,
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
From the title, you’d think this book would be soft and romantic, but it’s not at all. The main character, Victoria, is an 18-year-old who has just aged out of the foster care system. She has no friends, no family, no history, no prospects, and no skills, and soon she is homeless. Once she had a foster parent who taught her the language of flowers (i.e., asters = patience, red roses = love, etc.), and since she left that home, she has pursued her knowledge further. Based on this, she finds a florist willing to give her some under-the-table work, and creates for herself a small, regular life—for awhile. The book is told in alternating chapters between the one good foster home she was in at age 10 and her present existence, and the level of tension maintained as you wait to find out what happened that brought her to her current fix keeps you eagerly reading. The protagonist is engaging despite herself, and you don’t know whether you feel sorry for her or want to shake her. It’s a poignant story, and although Victoria isn’t always a likeable character, her courage is inspiring.
Forget-Her-Nots, by Amy Brecount White
While researching the Victorian language of flowers for a school project, 14-year-old Laurel discovers that the bouquets she creates have peculiar effects on people. Her mother hinted at an ancient family secret, and Laurel suspects it has something to do with her new-found talent, but her mom was never able to share either the gift or its use with Laurel. Unfortunately, Laurel uses this talent to meddle, and a string of incidents that involve the misuse of flowers threaten to mess significantly with everyone’s prom night experience. Clever, fun, and informative, too. (Young Adult fiction.)
The Art of Arranging Flowers, by Lynne Branard
Ruby Jewell grew up in a harsh environment, her only comfort being her close relationship with her sister, Daisy. Daisy’s death when Ruby was in her early 20s was devastating as well as life altering. Instead of pursuing her studies to become a lawyer, Ruby just wanted to curl up and die, too. It was the flowers that saved her. For 20 years now, Ruby has created floral arrangements at her shop in the small town of Creekside. With a few words from a customer, she knows just what flowers to use to help kindle a romance or heal a broken heart. However, Ruby has a barrier around her own heart and is determined that she will not allow it to be broken. It takes an extraordinary group of people to bring Ruby out from behind her wall.
If reading any or all of these causes you to be intrigued by the background these authors used to create their floral fantasies, you can read about Victorian identification in…
Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers
This is a charming reproduction of a rare volume by a 19th-century illustrator that includes a full-color illustrated list of more than 200 plants and their supposed meanings: tulip = fame; blue violet = faithfulness, etc.
And if you feel further inspired, you can read some germane nonfiction delving into the scientific significance of blooms:
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World,
by Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan has a vision in his garden that leads him to question the interrelationship between humans and plants. He postulates that the plant species humans have nurtured over the past 10,000 years may have benefited as much from their association with us as we have from ours with them. He decides to investigate four plants—apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana—and he digs into history, anecdote, and personal revelation to do so. It’s entertaining, philosophical, and smart.
The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture,
Biology, and How They Change Our Lives,
by Stephen L. Buchmann
This is a comprehensive examination of the roles flowers play in the production of our foods, spices, medicines, and perfumes. Buchmann also goes into the cultural history of flowers, examining everything from myths and legends, decor, poetry, and esthetics to their basis for various global industries. From the flowers to the pollinators to the people who pursue the many intertwined careers sparked by these natural wonders, Buchmann inquires about it all. A fascinating volume, liberally illustrated.
If you want more, there is a 17-book list on Goodreads on the subject of floriography.
Here’s hoping your next tussy-mussy conveys the emotions you desire!
By the book
As has been previously noted, I’m a sucker for books about books—a book featuring a bookstore, a library, a bookmobile, a librarian, a writer, a reader—if it’s book-centered, I usually end up reading it. After my post about a variety of these a few days ago, I decided to track down some more, but before I could do so, two serendipitously popped up, one of them a bargain book for my Kindle and the other “trending” on my Goodreads feed.
The first one I read was By the Book, by Julia Sonneborn, and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I should have taken the title literally, because this book is written “by the book” without necessarily being “about” books. Let me clarify.
It’s supposedly a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (so, yet another author for Jane Austen’s lawyer to sue in the afterlife), and while the basic elements are there—the woman and her former suitor, working their way gradually back into a relationship—there were so many other things to distract that the original material didn’t resonate for me as I read the story.
Anne Corey is teaching English at a small liberal arts college in the foothills outside San Bernardino. She’s quite happy in her work, but trouble looms: In order to gain tenure (and avoid being fired!), she has to get a book deal for her literary tome on women writers. She goes into the new fall semester thinking this will be her biggest challenge, but then discovers, somewhat to her dismay, that the newly hired president of her college is none other than her first love and former fiancé, Adam Martinez, the man she jilted in favor of college and career.
The “publish or perish” push to get tenure was an interesting story element; but some of the others (Anne’s gay friend Larry’s obsession with a closeted actor, Anne’s own romance with a questionable Lothario, and dealing with the needs of her aging father) seemed to distract from the main thesis quite a bit.
I’m not saying I didn’t like the book; I did. But it reads as much more of a light, “cozy” romance than it does as a book that is engaged with books and literature. We hear a lot about the writing of books without getting many details of what is written; and the rest is a mish-mash of confusing and contradictory human relationships, including the secondary love interest, who turns out to be something of a caricature.
I also felt that the author let the source material down by improperly characterizing “Captain Wentworth.” In Persuasion, Wentworth is dead set against Anne at the beginning, and a lot of the book is about how he gradually changes his mind and returns to his original feelings for her. But in By the Book, despite some red herring relationships for him, it’s pretty clear that Adam Martinez is still carrying the torch, which made the tension between them feel too flimsy to carry the story. It’s not a bad book, but I don’t think it will go into my “canon” of bibliophilia-related reading.
The second book I read, the one that kept popping up on Goodreads, was Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan, and it was a lot closer to being what I have in mind when I want a book about books.
First of all, I loved the description and provenance of the bookstore; it’s in a previously dodgy but now up-and-coming neighborhood, built into a former lightbulb factory, which is what contributed the name and logo (a lit-up bulb) for the store. While being a smart emporium for new books, it employs a variety of quirky book people, nicely described, and also serves as a haven for a group of book-loving ne’er-do-wells, from the homeless to the merely eccentric, with whom the main character, Lydia, is involved, due both to her empathetic nature and to her desire to share her love of books with all and sundry.
The gist of the story, however, is a mystery based on tragedy, both present-day and in the past, and both connected to Lydia. In the present, it’s the suicide of a boy who frequents the store (one of the customers the clerks call “Book Frogs”). This event contains an unexpected element that carries Lydia (and the reader) back to a traumatic incident in her childhood, and brings her into contact with people and incidents she had banished to her subconscious for a couple of decades. The suicide, a boy named Joey, leaves her ingenious clues contained within books he stole from the bookstore, and in piecing them together Lydia discovers connections about which she never dreamed.
I didn’t expect the book to be so dark or so mystery-oriented, but I loved the writing, the set-up of the atmosphere surrounding the events, and the protagonist’s gentle yet inexorable qualities. (I also loved the cover!)
I would definitely read something else by this author, and will probably read this one again someday.