Fresh Water for Flowers, Valerie Perrin

The mark of enduring fiction comes after the last page is turned. It’s when the reader’s mind keeps returning to the characters because they have become cherished friends.

Violette Toussaint is one such character. A foundling, as a child she forever tried to be good so a foster family would love her. She finally found that unconditional love in her daughter, Leonine, but never in her disastrous marriage to Philippe.

The novel roams back and forth in time and character point of view, so there is a long wait to find out what actually happened to Leonine and how such a complexity of characters and circumstances contributed to her loss.

At the beginning of their marriage Philippe and Violette are level crossing guards. They live by the train schedule as they must manually lower the barrier to prevent cars from crossing the tracks in front of trains. In reality, Violette does all the work and Philippe rides away on his motorcycle to mistresses far and wide.

When their level crossing is the very last one in France to be updated to automatic closure, Philippe and Violette must look for another source of income. At that point Leonine is no longer with them.

Violette finds the perfect job for them complete with a cottage. Philippe reluctantly accompanies her to become the cemetery keepers at Brancion-en-Chalon cemetery in Burgundy. It’s the perfect place for Violette as she throws herself into it. She keeps meticulous records of every funeral, the testimonies, those in attendance and the weather. She cares for each grave, planting trees and flowers and welcoming visitors with tea and cakes or something stronger if required.

As the story opens Violette has been the cemetery keeper for 20 years and Philippe has been a missing person of interest for 19 years. Her job has brought her satisfaction and happiness.

“I smooth rose cream over my hands. I spend hours with my fingers in the earth, gardening. I have to protect them. I like to have lovely hands. It’s been years now since I stopped biting my nails.”

Violette explains in detail her gardening duties.

“In April, I put ladybird larvae on my rosebushes, and on those of the deceased, to combat greenfly. I’m the one who places the ladybirds, one by one, with a little paintbrush, on the plants. It’s as though I repainted my garden in the spring. As if I planted stairways between earth and sky. I don’t believe in phantoms or ghosts, but I do believe in ladybirds….Placing my ladybirds, one by one, keeps me busy for ten days, if I do only that. If there’s no funeral in the meantime. Putting them on the rosebushes feels like opening the doors to the sun, letting it in over my cemetery. It’s like giving it permission. A permit. That doesn’t stop anyone from dying during the month of April, or from visiting me.”

Violette has a quirky side. She is not above donning a sheet and riding a unicycle through the night to scare the wits out of teenagers drinking beer on her premises. She wears dark clothes on the outside and beautiful bright clothes underneath. In the face of life’s tragedies she is a joyful person.

“Life is but a passage, let us at least scatter flowers on that passage..”

At the end of this beautiful novel I am seriously considering becoming a cemetery keeper.

Good Women, Jane Stevenson

Good Women is a trilogy of novellas about three good women if you broaden the concept of ‘good women’. First is “Light My Fire” about a passionate love affair headed for a quite comic disaster. In the second, “Walking with Angels,” a middle-aged housewife gets into trouble after angels befriend her. The third, “Garden Guerrillas” is of the garden-friendly variety.

Alice is a widow with a married son, David. When her husband, Geoff, was alive he convinced her to put their Kew Gardens three story, Georgian home in a trust with the four of them as beneficiaries. Their posh part of London over the years had become very valuable real estate and he wanted to save on death taxes.

 So, here she is, one old woman with a beloved garden living in a large home while David and his wife, Karen, make do at a much less prestigious address.  Son and wife come up with the idea that Alice is no longer able to properly care of her home and garden. Better that they should have it and Alice graduate to a one bedroom with no garden. Of course she could come over and help Karen with the garden. As trustees they have the power to forcibly remove her.

How that idea infuriates Alice. How dare they. She never liked her pushy daughter-in-law anyway and David is spineless.

Suddenly Alice, who spent her life catering to other’s needs, finds the grit to look after her own interests.  It is her garden that got her hackles standing stiff.

“None of them seemed to have the faintest realization that the garden was mine. Not just something that had happened, but my creation, a work of art, and not the automatic result of existing on Kew Green. And as for David’s luckless suggestion that I might keep myself busy working as her unpaid gardener … ! Words absolutely and definitively fail me!

 Karen particularly appalls her:

“She seemed to think that it all just happened like that. Didn’t she know I spent hours and hours thinking and planning, quite apart from the hours I spent weeding and pruning and trimming and deadheading? A garden can’t be made to stand still, plants go from too small to too big, you have to keep thinking and moving stuff around, or it starts going wrong.”

Alice’s deep knowledge of plants suddenly sparks a delicious idea to pay them back.

“It was an established, mature garden; all the architecture, the box pyramids and so forth, was in situ and in excellent condition and the shrubs and trees were full-size. It wouldn’t be as nice as if I was hovering over it on a daily basis, but even with a pretty conservative programme of weeding and sorting out, it would coast on for quite a while looking fine, by most standards. It was then that a temptation came to me, in the form of a little voice which whispered, ‘And what if it wasn’t quite that easy?’”

Angry Alice for the first time in her life becomes an anti-gardener. She starts totaling up the plants that would turn her garden gradually and surreptitiously into a jungle. Lythrum salicaria would grow half an inch a day, Phyllostachys aurea travels by underground rhizomes, rapidly invading anywhere, Polygonum cuspidatum goes eight feet down and eighteen feet from the parent. Pueraria montana  strangles and smothers other plants in its way. There were many garden gangsters Alice could hire. Karen would be well out of her depth. These green molesters could go so far as damaging a neighbor’s property.

With that thought in mind, Alice contacts Garden Gorilla Nursery which specializes in tough plants for difficult sites. There, Alice finds her marauders and an old friend from her single, Bohemian days.

On the way she discovers her true self and her true gardening philosophy:

“Gardening is a passionate business, but not sentimental. You can love and cherish a tree for twenty years, but if you detect symptoms of the dreaded honey fungus, you know that even if it looks just as beautiful as it did yesterday, it’s actually dead. Your feelings about it have to change, because you have to get it out of there in order to protect everything else. That was more or less how I felt about the garden as a whole. The plants from Alston were lying low, like true garden guerillas, they were flourishing and digging themselves in, but they didn’t look like anything out of the way. Only I knew that they were the seeds of future destruction.”

Finding Jane Stevenson is a true literary and garden gift.

Candide, Voltaire

“Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes,” Chico Marx said in the 1933 movie, Duck Soup. Voltaire was way ahead of him when he published his short, comic French satire in 1759.

Candide, an innocent young man, has been taught by Professor Pangloss, an authority on metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology, that the world is the best it can be and optimism is the way to go. It is the Age of Enlightenment.

Abruptly at the beginning of the novel, Candide is banished from his life of pleasure in a Westphalian castle by Baron von Thunder-ten-Tronckh. The Baron caught Candide kissing his plump and desirable daughter, Cunegonde. He immediately chases him from the castle with great kicks on the backside.

Thus begins Candide’s world travels with one objective – to get back to the love of his life, beautiful Cunegonde. He is conscripted into the Bulgarian military, endures shipwreck and earthquake in Portugal, wanders through the Spanish Inquisition, meets the Jesuits of Paraguay, is given great treasure in El Dorado, travels to Surinam, Japan and around the Cape of Good Hope on his way to Italy, France and England. He makes it to Constantinople and finally to Transylvania where he rescues Cunegonde from slavery. She is no longer beautiful.

 In his painful but hilarious travels, Candide meets another philosopher, Martin, whom he asks:

“Do you believe,” said Candide, “that men have always massacred each other as they do to-day, that they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates, brigands, idiots, thieves, scoundrels, gluttons, drunkards, misers, envious, ambitious, bloody-minded, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools?”

“Do you believe,” said Martin, “that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?”

“Yes, without a doubt,” said Candide.

“Well, then,” said Martin, “If hawks have always had the same character why should you imagine that men may have changed theirs?”

After very bad experiences in France, Candide and Martin are on their way to England. Candide once again asks Martin’s opinion:

“You know England? Are they as foolish there as in France?”

“It is another kind of folly,” said Martin. “You know that these two nations are at war for a few acres of snow in Canada, that they spend over this beautiful war much more than Canada is worth. To tell you exactly, whether there are more people fit to send to a madhouse in one country than the other, is what my imperfect intelligence will not permit. I only know in general that the people we are going to see are very atrabilious.”

The very last sentence in this little book is “we must cultivate our garden.” After his mountain of troubles traversing the world, Candide admits working a garden is the only worthwhile activity for mankind. He reaches this conclusion after speaking to an old man in Turkey.

“You must have a vast and magnificent estate,” said Candide to the Turk.

“I have only twenty acres,” replied the old man; “I and my children cultivate them; our labour preserves us from three great evils – weariness, vice, and want.”

The Last Garden in England, Julia Kelly

Five women from three different eras are tied together by one beautiful garden.

 In 1907 Venetia Smith,  garden designer, is hired to create a series of garden rooms for an elegant country estate, Highbury House, owned by a newly rich couple who seek to impress.

 They want “a garden imbued with elegance and ambition, one that will look as though it had been in the family for years rather than being a new acquisition funded by the recent inheritance of his soap fortune.”

 In 1944 Highbury House is conscripted by the government to serve as a convalescent hospital. Land girl, Beth Pelly, cook, Stella Adderton and mistress of the house, Lady Diana Symonds are all intertwined in the war effort and the heartbreaking events of the war.

In 2021 Emma Lovell is hired to restore the neglected Highbury House gardens to their former glory. As a business owner she struggles to stay above water and the commission to restore these sumptuous garden rooms is a plum that she must not let go of. She must also shake off the doubts her mother has about her choice of career.

It is sometimes difficult to keep track of the five story lines in the book especially since three of the women are living in the house at the same time. That is the 1944 year of World War II. The mistress, Diana, is mourning the loss of her husband, the orphaned land girl, Beth, is anxious to settle where people care for her and a longtime servant, Stella,  aches to get away from the strict class structure of the estate. 1907 and 1944 include secrets that are left to the 2021 garden restorer, Emma, to discover.

This historical romance explores the social constraints women faced in all three eras and their unique solutions to surmounting them. Along the way the author provides numerous depictions of bountiful garden room designs.

This is Venetia’s plan for the tea and the  lovers’ gardens:

“I wanted to shock a visitor walking from the calming, feminine plantings of pale purple heliotrope, light pink echinacea, and creamy peonies into a room almost obscene with color. Rich red roses, deep purple salvia, and the red flowering spikes of persicaria, Banana plants, Japanese maples, dahlias, tulips – I wanted it to make people gasp.”

In her author’s note Julia Kelly writes:

“I believe that much like books, gardens are organic, unpredictable things, revealing their beauty how and when they choose. It’s up to us to remember to pause and enjoy that beauty every day.”

When we can’t enjoy walking in a garden, reading descriptions of well -planned gardens can be a pleasant substitute and a fount of ideas for our own gardens.

Larry’s Party, Carol Shields

Carol Shields takes the reader forensically into her characters, in this case, Larry Weller. We follow Larry from awkward, directionless teen to a 46 year old, famously successful, garden maze designer. Even Larry wonders how it all happened.

Larry and his first wife, Dorrie, are just clueless kids when she gets pregnant and they get married. Larry went to floral design college (Dorrie thought it was actual college) and gets a job in a flower shop. Larry’s parents give them a tour of England as a wedding gift. That is where Larry becomes obsessed with hedges in general and mazes in particular.

“The hedges were everywhere. Out in the countryside they separated fields from pasture land, snaking up and down the tilted landscape, criss-crossing each other or angling wildly out of sight, dividing one patch of green from another, providing a barrier between cattle and sheep and flocks of geese. …  In the towns the clipped hedges served as fences between houses, a stitching of fine green seams, and gave protection and privacy to tiny garden plots. Luxurious and shapely, they seemed pieces of tended sculpture, and now, late in a mild winter, their woody fullness was enveloped by a pale furred cloud of green. Buds in March. It seemed impossible. Young leaves unfolding.”

In Manchester Larry finds a book in the bargain bin – Hedges of England and Scotland. He studies it for the rest of the tour until the last day when they pull up to the maze at Hampton Court.

“The interior of the maze had made him dizzy. … The green walls rose about him, too high to see over. Who would have expected such height and density? And he hadn’t anticipated the sensation of feeling unplugged from the world or the heightened state of panicked awareness that was nevertheless, repairable. Without thinking, he had slowed his pace, falling behind the others, willing himself to be lost, to be alone.”

When Larry finally stumbles out of the Hampton Court maze, his life is changed forever. The obsession leads him to fill his tiny yard in Winnipeg with a maze. That leads Dorrie to hire a bulldozer to tear it out.  It is too much for Larry who calls it quits. Although his marriage failed, Larry’s maze career succeeds wildly. He moves to Chicago and acquires a new wife, Beth, a college professor specializing in female saints.

The overlapping chapters of Larry’s life finally culminate in Larry’s party in Toronto. He’s launching his latest most creative maize.

“Larry hopes, and this was the view he presented to the press this morning in a prepared statement – that the maze will incorporate the essential lost-and-found odyssey of a conventional maze, but will allow the maze walker to forget that the shrub material is a kind of wall and think of it, rather, as an extension of a dreamy organic world, with the maze and the maze solver merging to form a single organism.”

Both ex-wives are going to be in town so his girlfriend, Charlotte, convinces him to give a party. She would help. She’s always helping. Larry likes her but can’t love her. She bites too hard at the biscuit of life, he thinks.

Larry is a bit lost at his own party, especially when his second ex-wife shows up 7 months glowingly pregnant. It turns out to be a raucous, illuminating party for Larry. As he tells Dorrie at the end of the evening, he’s discovered he no longer wants to be lost, he wants to be found.

Some run the Shepherd’s Race – a rut

                Within a grass-plot, deeply cut

                And wide enough to tread –

                A maze of path, of old designed

                To tire the feet, perplex the mind,

                Yet pleasure heart and head;

                “Tis not unlike this life we spend,

                And where you start from, there you end.

                                                (Bradfield, Sentan’s Wells, 1854)