Eva Sutherland—known to all as Lovey—grew up safe and secure in Oxford, Mississippi, surrounded by a rich literary history and her mother’s stunning flower gardens. But a shed fire, and the injuries it caused, changed everything. Her older sister, Bitsy, blamed Lovey for the irreparable damage. Bitsy became the homecoming queen and the perfect Southern belle who could do no wrong. All the while, Lovey served as the family scapegoat, always bearing the brunt when Bitsy threw blame her way. At eighteen, suffocating in her sister’s shadow, Lovey turned down a marriage proposal and fled to Arizona. Free from Bitsy’s vicious lies, she became a successful advertising executive and a weekend yoga instructor, carving a satisfying life for herself. But at forty-five, Lovey is feeling more alone than ever and questioning the choices that led her here. When her father calls insisting she come home three weeks early for her parents’ 50th anniversary, Lovey is at her wits’ end. She’s about to close the biggest contract of her career, and there’s a lot on the line. But despite the risks, her father’s words, “Family First,” draw her back to the red-dirt roads of Mississippi. Lovey is drawn in to a secret project—a memory garden her father has planned as an anniversary surprise. As she helps create this sacred space, Lovey begins to rediscover her roots, learning how to live perennially in spite of life’s many trials and tragedies.
Eva "Lovey" Sutherland and her estranged older sister Bitsy are asked by their parents to put differences aside and come together for the parents' 50th wedding anniversary.
As small children, Lovey and Bitsy were actually quite close, playing in the woods around their Mississippi home, catching fireflies, etc... you know, all the classic markers of a Southern childhood. That changed the year a new girl moved into the neighborhood and made one comment that forever after had Bitsy feeling self-conscious about possibly being perceived as "trash". From then on, it was all about appearances for her -- no more playing in the dirt, nails / hair / outfits kept obsessively pristine, even a run in the beauty pageant scene. But Lovey never wanted any of that for herself, so Bitsy grows to resent this embarrassment of a sister. Tensions come to a head one night when their mother's gardening shed catches fire. Lovey's friend, Finn, is pulled from the blaze, surviving, but physically scarred for the rest of his life. Bitsy immediately calls out Lovey as the suspected arsonist and from that point on Lovey is made to feel the redheaded stepchild of the family.
By the age of 18, tired of being the scapegoat for all of Bitsy's bad behavior (as well as the target of her most severe bullying), Lovey hightails it out of the South, finding a new home in the arid lands of Arizona. Now in her 40s and a successful ad exec / part-time yoga instructor, Lovey gets a call from her father right in the middle of perhaps the most important advertising contract of her career, pressing her to rush back home and visit with her mother for a few weeks. Lovey hears urgency in his voice, but he's notably evasive about his reasons for asking for a rushed arrival, only claiming that Lovey's mother needs "emotional support" during the stress of the party planning. Lovey rightly assumes there's plenty not being said here but figures she can get the full story once everyone meets up face to face. After some juggling around with the staff, she manages to make time for the trip, though the decision puts her career on the line.
"When it all comes down to it, it's the only real job we've been given," Mother continues. "Get this one spirit through to the end. And still be willing to love and be loved in spite of all the hurts we endure along the way."
Once home, Lovey finds that not much has changed, at least on the surface. Her mother is still ever the classic Southern Belle type, perfect posture, fine clothes, pristinely coiffed and draped in Chanel No. 5 and just crazy about her flower beds. Lovey's parents still speak glowingly of golden child Bitsy, much to Lovey's annoyance. Adult Lovey is still struggling with barely processed, long-buried hurts from her childhood, hurts that seem to be resurfacing now that she's at the scene of the crime, so to speak. How can one family be so blind to the pain of a loved one directly in front of them, she wonders. They're either blind to it or blatantly dismissive! Lovey struggles with the realization of the truth of all these years, the core of the emotional lacerations: Her parents failed to defend / protect her from the evil of the world. They failed to protect their child. The bad people of the world who made her life hell were never held accountable. In fact, the blame was often placed on Lovey's shoulders, in some form or another. There are some pretty serious topics touched upon in this novel, but let me say, IMO they were addressed in a VERY mild manner. Still, I could feel for Lovey on this front, having gone through similar struggles myself with my own family.
"She's been jealous her whole life, Lovey. You're bound to know that much." (Lovey's friend, Fisher / Finn's brother talking about Bitsy)
"Jealous of me? Oh, come on. That's ridiculous. She's the golden girl. Homecoming queen. You name it."
"She may wear the crown, but she's never had half the heart you have. That's why she tries to break yours."
Cantrell could've taken this story so much deeper, I think. So many of us are struggling with the familial strains she only lightly skims the surface of in this book. But because she only mildly skirted around these tensions, this novel didn't have quite as much punch as I was expecting. Some of the places where it fell short for me:
* I sometimes got a little bored with Cantrell's interpretation of New Age themes, though I will admit Marian, the Sedona yogi, does give the readers some gems of dialogue from time to time:
-- "Just remember, Eva. The harsher the winter, the more vibrant the bloom come spring."
-- "It doesn't matter what people call me. Fact of the matter is, I'm all that encompasses this human journey, and change is constant. That can't possibly be summed up in one little word."
* I felt Bitsy's bitterness was carried out a bit over-long in the story.
* The plot overall is a little predictable. That phone call between Lovey and her father at the beginning of the book -- the 1st time he hesitates when she asks him what the rush is about, I knew where Cantrell was likely taking the story (because it's where SO many authors in this genre tend to want to take family dramas nowadays).
Where this book DOES shine though:
* Cantrell's story illustrating the danger in thinking that there'll always be time later on to tell loved ones how special they are to you, time to resolve differences etc. We're all guilty of it, but this story reminds readers that there's no time like the present to say your peace and share the love among family & friends.
* Cantrell NAILS the "life is like a garden" type analogies. Seriously, some of the imagery she thinks up for her characters to speak had me like "Oh wow, that's good!"
"Think of it this way." Mother leans to pull one of her bright pink zinnia to hand. "When a flower blooms, its seeds will scatter. Right? Well, let's say some of those seeds land in a parking lot. Others land in a fertile field. Is that fair? No. Some will have real disadvantages, greater challenges."
"But they can all grow," Finn says. "As long as they find a healthy place to root."
"Bingo!" Mother points Finn's way, giving him the win. "Some may have to settle for a crack in the pavement. But once a seed takes root, it can find its way to the light. Become all it was born to be."
Bitsy looks at us with frustration, as if we still don't understand. "Don't you see? Even if the flower manages to bloom, some people will stomp it to bits just because they can."
"But others will go out of their way to water it," Fisher counters. Finn nods.
* I kept thinking this story could make a pretty good Southern drama movie, or at the very least an idea for a country music video LOL. There's even one scene in the book that illustrates how music can bring people together when nothing else will.
* Cantrell shows some love for classic Southern literature: plenty of Faulkner references; as you can imagine, but I especially loved the Eudora Welty bits. Reminded me I need to get into some of her stuff again sometime soon!
For book clubs --- or maybe garden clubs who also like to do reading on the side? -- there are discussion questions included in the back of the book, as well as an "Activity Sparks" page with prompts for creative projects inspired by scenes / characters from this novel.
FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.