Nominated for the Pen/Faulkner Award, this is a novel that captures the lives of women. It has a natural affinity with The Catcher in the Rye. Also of note, chapter Seven, Lemon-Scented Death, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. This chapter begins with the sentence, “If you lived near the river in 1955, it took everything, Nora thought.” This is a powerful chapter giving us a key piece of the mother’s childhood.
This novel revolves around Flora McDermott, a young woman in love with her high school math teacher. It opens with the sentence, “Everett Finn liked white-bread sandwiches.” She gives up lunch to sit with him in his classroom while he eats his sandwiches. He is a ‘white-bread’ character who says one thing but then acts another. Everett is called Ev for short by his wife, called Mr. Finn by Flora who spends every available minute with him, and called simply Finn by Flora’s mother. Flora refers to her love for Mr. Finn from the moment she met him as “…flying down the rabbit hole—you’re going to hit Wonderland. Hard.”
Mid-way through the novel Flora follows Mr. Finn home. From outside his house she watches him, “He made himself a sandwich and sat at his kitchen table eating. The kitchen looked cozy and old-fashioned, with a coal burning cook stove at the far end. For a while nothing happened except that a cat came in and rubbed against his feet. He looked a little sad sitting there eating by himself, wearing an expression that supposed it wasn’t being watched. And of course he was handsome, like a movie star who had never been discovered.”
Flora McDermott reminds me of a female Holden Caulfield. She embodies adolescent angst; the feeling that one is utterly alone, outside everyone in the world. “From her dark little niche Flora looked out at the hideousness of life—her ability to understand it, and her place in it, falling away in shreds.” Despite this, she calls herself an “aspiring optimist.” Toward the end of the book, while away at college, “She begins a campaign for happiness.”
Flora loves an older married man. A common story. Young love is the most passionate, yet it always fades. She writes him long letters and poetry professing her love, “And her pens were possessed by sex maniacs that lived inside them and dictated.” These letters to are burned by his wife in a scene at Lake Lisotte (Chapter Four). Flora and her friend Naomi watch the mysterious burning from a distance.
Flora is an observer. Of her high school prom she knows, “Every high school has a prom queen. You know the drill. She wears a pink satin dress and matching corsage. She has a preppie king. Sometimes they arrive in limousines. It’s a cookie-cutter ritual for the cookie-cutter crowd.” Her and her friend Naomi, “were the school’s alternate royalty. They were the punk queens, kingless and uncrowned.”
She works at Hotel de la Fleur where she cleans rooms and prepares food. Later at college she works at a bookstore. After moving away to college she sinks into a depression and cuts herself. “Back in the room she cuts little niks on her hand with one of the razors. She’s like to make them into artistic little designs like tattoos but it hurts too much. The pain kind of wakes her up and makes her realize she’s acting crazy.”
Within this novel, the author enfolds and bridges three generations of women—highlighting their relationships to men—and how this impacts their relationship to each other. Flora comes from a broken home, her hippie mother married an abusive alcoholic. They found each other after being sent to an asylum, where they each had electro shock therapy. Flora’s story is set in the 80s. The story of her mother and father’s relationship is set in the 60s. Her grandmother’s story is set in the 50s.
Flora has a younger sister Alice, who is her mother’s favorite. There is a pony in the family, “Outside, their pony, Star, given to them by a girl who mistakenly thought she was a pony person, stands by his shed watching the day disappear.” Flora’s mother and father separated. The mother was in a relationship with Whiskey Jim, an abusive alcoholic, while Flora was young. Of his music career Flora notes, “After that evening of REO Speedwagon and Journey cover tunes, renditions that would’ve made anyone with adequate hearing cringe, Flora could say unequivocally that Jim didn’t have a snowball’s chance of ever becoming a rock star. In fact, with his winning personality—or the liquored-up id that he let reign—she was pretty sure he was never going to get his big break in music, or in anything else. Nothing short of divine intervention could have wakened Whiskey Jim from his booze-is-my-alpha-and-my-omega nightmare. As far as she could see, his only talent was getting drunk and smashing things. At that he was a virtuoso.”
Flora remembers the nights Whiskey Jim beat her mother, their stay in a Save Haven where the living room was “desolate.” And, “Flora’s take on it was that battered women didn’t gravitate to living rooms because they weren’t exactly living. They were all just hanging on at the fringes of existence.” The Save Haven, “felt haunted by misery.” The day she realized he would not be returning she says, “…they should’ve declared the day their own personal holiday: National Emancipation from Loser-Boozer Day.”
Her grandmother’s story layered into the book, she was kicked out by her husband in a rage, calling her an adulteress. Flora’s mother, Nora, was aware of the growing relationship between her mother and a married lawyer who was infatuated with her. After a torrid divorce her mother married this married man who pursued her. “Years back, Flora’s mother used to tell her about the divorce. It was a tragic epic story, condensed like on of those grisly old nursery rhymes told to toddlers who hear the rhythm without grasping the content.” In the story, “She said what really happened was that Grandpa went crazy after Grandma left. Mom was a beatnik but perfectly sane. Flora knew the whole story by heart and was somehow oddly reassured by its consistency.”
Flora breaks the cycle of abuse in a climatic scene a year after her graduation from high school. She has started to move on with her life. She is in college. She has a new best friend, Raye, who is a lesbian. “Flora thinks Raye fell in love with anthropology when she found out that in ancient Greece homosexuality was considered the sexual orientation of the bourgeois class.” The math teacher’s wife Lottie is an angelic creature who on the surface appears to have everything, she runs her own business, but she is trying to have a child without success. She will not tolerate her husband’s indiscretion. She confronts Flora, who’s response is, “Of course Flora doesn’t say anything. What is there to say? Doesn’t she know that all teenagers are incorrigible?” Lottie knows how to shoot a gun and owns one. Meanwhile, Flora has purchased handcuffs and has a plan. There is a planned meeting between Flora and Mr. Finn that is overheard on voice mail. There is the final confrontation.
The story blends seamlessly with characters that are present and real. The details, the objects, the lists are engaging and pertinent to the unfolding story. This author does a great job of weaving back and forth in time to broaden each character into our consciousness. We care. The language is a joy to read it is prose written as poetry. It is not a book of unbearable tensions, but it is a book that could be you living it today in any of these characters. It is a valuable first book that gives a close-up view of how women survive abusive relationships.
Julene Tripp Weaver is mainly a poet who also writes fiction inspired by Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writing. Her poetry book, No Father Can Save Her, was published by Plain View Press in 2011. Her chapbook Case Walking: An AIDS Case Manager Wails her Blues, is from her work for 18 years in HIV services. Her poetry is published in many journals and anthologies. Two recent anthologies include: A Dream in the Clouds, featuring art inspired by the 2008 Presidential Election, and Spaces Between Us: Poetry, Prose and Art on HIV/AIDS. She does wordplay on Twitter @trippweavepoet and has a website where you can read more of her writing, http://www.julenetrippweaver.com.