Friday, December 8, 2017

A Hundred Small Lessons

By Ashley Hay
Atria  2017
288 pages     Literary

I had an existential experience yesterday as I was nearing the end of A Hundred Small Lessons. Not sure if it was my existential moment, or one projected onto the two main women characters in the book—each of whom is experiencing her own existential moments.

Elsie Gormley lived in her house in Brisbane, Australia for more than 60 years, raised her twin son and daughter there, buried her husband Clem, and lived by herself until she fell and her kids moved her to an assisted living facility. She is totally disoriented and keeps trying to get home.

Lucy, her husband Ben, and her toddler, Tom, have purchased Elsie’s house, but Lucy is as disoriented as Elsie. Lucy and Ben had lived internationally, and when Tom was born, they moved to Ben’s home town of Brisbane to settle down, buy a house, and raise their family. Lucy doesn’t come to motherhood easily, and she is upset that she is struggling. She thinks that she keeps seeing Elsie when she is wandering around the house at night; who is this woman who used to live in her house?

A Hundred Small Lessons is a lovely, reflective book. Nothing moves very rapidly; there is no enormous plot twist, but the novel is always engaging and satisfying. There are three main themes: the first is about choosing and being chosen. Both women are loved, and both women have chosen to love. It is also about motherhood. All Elsie wanted in life was to be a mother, and she is completely fulfilled in that role. Her own daughter, Elaine, is of another generation, and although she has a lovely daughter, she has spent her adult life trying to distance herself from her mother’s form of motherhood. Lucy, another generation behind Elaine, knows that being a mother is just one part of the life she plans for herself. Finally, it is a meditation on the many decisions that a person makes that change the course of a life.

The house, itself, plays a huge role in the novel.  All of Elsie’s memory is attached to that house, and as Lucy attempts to create a home, she can’t get the aura of Elsie out of the house. Part of the emotional resonance of the book is the understanding of home. The Kirkus review begins with the statement, “If home is where the heart is, when does a house become a home—or, conversely, stop being one? Two women struggle to find the answer.” I have lived in houses, and I have lived in homes. The difference, I believe, is what happened within that structure.  

Hay is an accomplished novelist, and is well known in her native Australia. She mentions that there are some autobiographical moments in the book, and those who know Brisbane recognize places where scenes take place. The plot is spare and sometimes non-existent, but the atmosphere and the finely-drawn characters are what moves the reader forward. Someone called it a comfort read. I guess I would describe it that way as well, and thus the existential experience I had yesterday. I saw myself in both women’s places—the old woman having to leave, and the young woman just beginning. I loved them both.  

Ashley Hay’s website.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Language of Flowers

By Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Ballentine Books     2012
322 pages     Literary

Book club is Thursday night, and I am fascinated about the potential discussion we will have about The Language of Flowers.
The premise is that each variety of flower, wild and cultivated, has an emotion attached to it. In Victorian times, one gave flowers that were connected with the emotion he or she wanted to convey. So, for example,  in the language of flowers, my favorite Gerber daisies convey cheerfulness. Giving Gerber daisies might be a good idea to bring to a hospital patient. The novel is followed by a glossary of flowers and their Victorian meanings.

Victoria, the protagonist of The Language of Flowers is a child who has been tossed about by the foster care system; she is so damaged that she fits nowhere. Her case worker says that she is “detached, quick tempered, tight-lipped, unrepentant.” At age 9 she ends up with grape farmer, Elizabeth, who tells Victoria that this is her last stop and this is where she will stay. Elizabeth grew up on a flower farm and she teaches Victoria the language of flowers. Victoria realizes that she has found her calling for life. She memorizes all the flower meanings, creating scrapbooks of pictures of flowers with their meanings attached. But even this idyllic setting ends up being just a way-station for Victoria, and within a year she is back in group homes until at age 18, she ages out of the system and is on her own. 

The narrative shifts back and forth from Victoria at age 9 with Elizabeth to Victoria as an 18-year-old out on the street, stealing food and sleeping in public parks. A wonderful florist names Renata sees Victoria’s potential and hires her to work in her shop. Renata is a wonderful character, who seems to see Victoria’s need for self-preservation and offers just the right amount of nurturing and the right amount of help.

Diffenbaugh tries to tackle a lot of subjects –adoption, foster homes, emancipation, homelessness, single motherhood, and attachment disorder—perhaps too many subjects, because I didn’t quite know where to place all my emotions. The least resonant part of the plot (for me) concerned the day of the adoption hearing, when Elizabeth is going to adopt Victoria, and suddenly Elizabeth backs out of the deal. The reasoning behind it is so nebulous that I never did quite figure it out. At that point, Diffenbaugh lost me as a committed reader, and I finished the book simply because my book club is going to discuss it this week.

What I did like particularly were the flowers and the way Victoria found purpose for her life in the flowers. As I was reading, I kept thinking of a young woman I know who has had a similar life experience to Victoria. She has found purpose for her life with animals, and a kind dog kennel owner has nurtured that love of dogs by giving her a job at the kennel. 

I also realized as I read The Language of Flowers that I was feeling emotionally manipulated by a contrived plot, and a lot of loose ends. I was let down by the ending, while at the same time I realized that the overarching theme resonated with me. The New York Times reviewer felt much the same way I did, but the Washington Post reviewer loved it. She found it “original and brilliant.” I guess that is why there are so many genres of novels—books to appeal to everyone. 

Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s website. I kept thinking her last name was dieffenbachia—which is a common house plant. I wonder what it’s Victorian meaning is.