I make a conscious attempt to not repeat myself with this column. It would be easy to do: my favourite writers are my favourites for a reason, and yay, they keep writing great books. But I figure that wouldn’t be terribly interesting for anyone but me. Besides, there are so many Romances published every year. The field is enormous, and I want to demonstrate its depth and breadth and reach.
That said, this month, I’m totally repeating myself. Because, damn. I just read a book by Barbara O’Neal that took off the top of my head, dug in deep, and planted a story that set down roots.
I wrote an earlier column about Barbara (writing then as Barbara Samuel), in which I tried to describe her astonishing ability to write characters who live through devastating emotional catastrophes and nonetheless manage to find their way to a different kind of whole. I am, in summary, a fan. So I was pretty sure I’d enjoy her newest title, The Garden Of Happy Endings.
‘Enjoy’ doesn’t come close. I was utterly, absolutely fascinated.
Garden is centred on two sisters, Elsa and Tamsin. Elsa, the younger of the two, is a Reverend in the Unity Church. When a tragedy strikes her small congregation, she has a serious crisis of faith. To recoup, she goes back to her hometown, where her sister and her best friend, a Roman Catholic priest known as Father Jack, both live.
Elsa runs the parish soup kitchen, and tries to put her heart back together. Tamsin has her own challenges. She misses both her college-aged daughter, currently spending a year in Spain, and her wealthy husband, who travels often. A gifted gardener, she joins in when Elsa and Father Jack decide to turn a vacant lot into a community garden. Then it turns out her husband isn’t traveling, but fleeing from the consequences of having embezzled millions of dollars. So Tamsin is left to pay the price, and her home and all her belongings are seized.
The community garden is the heart of this book, in every way. It’s the central metaphor, the artistic motif, and it’s at the core of the plot. It’s virtually a character. The garden brings Elsa in contact with Deacon, a local landscaper with scars on his own soul. It challenges Tamsin to re-examine her ideas of both service and suffering. It brings out the best, and the worst, of the people in the neighborhood. And as it grows, the garden forces Father Jack to face a secret sadness he has managed to ignore for years.
And oh, that garden! Hewn from an overgrown lot haunted by drug dealers and possibly ghosts, it becomes a beacon: a living, breathing steady place to stand. I’m currently in the middle of my own garden-reworking project, so this story of cultivation and new beginnings hit me at a particularly good time. The language O’Neal uses to describe plants is like poetry. A practical sort of poetry, celebrating the beauty of food and security and colour even as it made me a little drunk with its richness. I kept finding myself reading bits aloud, and could almost hear the tomatoes growing as I did.
O’Neal’s knows how to grow more than a garden, though. She has the impressive ability to create characters who learn to make beauty out of loss, and not in a movie-of-the-week way. Her characters forge promise out of pain, whether as a garden, or a quilt, or a relationship. Deacon, for instance, has done serious wrong in his life. So he lives carefully now, deliberately, not only to atone, but also to become someone who makes instead of destroys. Elsa, for all her inner turmoil, cannot help but try to improve the lives of those around her. Their shared determination to do some good is what brings them together.
Barbara also deals directly with a subject that affects everyone, everywhere: money. Tamsin loses all of hers with sudden, shocking finality: after a hard day’s work at the garden, she returns home to find everything she owns under police lockdown. She’s left homeless, without so much as a toothbrush. It’s not just a humiliating social comedown, it’s a graphic depiction of what can happen to people without a safety net.
The garden itself exists because the parish is a poor one. For them, the garden is more than a link to a wider community – it’s a chance at survival. It’s food, and they cannot work enough hours to keep themselves and their children fed. So when hoodlums attack the garden one night, tearing up fences and smashing tender seedlings, the characters aren’t just angry, they’re devastated. The line between something and nothing can be as simple as a patch of vegetables.
And then there’s the question of faith. I’ll flat out admit that I was prepared to dislike the religious element of the book, particularly the Catholicism*. But to my surprise and appreciation, I didn’t. Elsa, certainly, has seen the officers of the Church at their worst, but manages to draw comfort from their rituals anyway. Her own faith sustained her for so long, and through so much, that she is lost without it. Working with the garden helps this woman of faith nurture both the ‘woman’ and the‘faith’ parts of her psyche.
Father Jack was another surprise. At a time when the Catholic Church seems determined to render itself as abhorrent as possible, it was striking to see a revealing portrait of a man truly committed to his calling. Jack deeply believes in his duty, but he grieves for the family he will never be allowed to have. He never once loses faith, but he does suffer for his choices.
Elsa’s faith struggles are not my struggles. Father Jack’s god is not my god. But their faith gives them both joy and misery. It twines through their lives, and grows and changes with the seasons like the garden, and I was captivated by the depiction of both. I may not agree with the tenets and practices of their faiths, but Elsa and Jack each provide a great deal of good, spiritual and practical, to a great many people. And O’Neal’s gifted prose is so timely, and perfect and beautifully wrought that I can’t stop thinking about it
*My mother’s family is half-French Canadian and half-Irish. Unless one can somehow also be half Italian, it’s hard to be too much more Roman Catholic than that.
Ripping out her front yard in order to replant it makes Chris Szego feel half-earth goddess and half-HULK SMASH! which definitely counts as win-win.