Books about family history usually leave me cold, but when they involve murder/suicides, Nazi concentration camps, and the possible dissolution of a relationship, the entertainment value shoots up sharply. And that’s the case with Kieran York (Lambda Literary Award nominee in 2013 for Appointment With a Smile) and her latest novel, Careful Flowers.
Fleur Hamilton, a botanist trying to get a grant to continue a project, is also going through the recent death of her Aunt Golda, a Holocaust survivor who raised Fleur after her parents were killed in a car accident. But a phone call from an old friend of her mother’s convinces Fleur they actually died in a murder/suicide. Who killed who is unclear, but Fleur abandons her project and her somewhat weakened relationship with Abby, her partner of sixteen years, to fly to San Francisco and dig out the truth.
For a relatively short book (less than 200 pages), York attempts to keep a lot of balls in the air as she juggles the mystery about Fleur’s parents, Fleur’s deteriorating relationship with Abby, decoding letters her Aunt Golda wrote in the concentration camp, and a final decision Fleur must make. However, she manages this act quite well, never shorting the reader on any of these accounts. Part of this is due to her timing and ability to weave some of these disparate threads together, but part of her success also comes from creating interesting characters and letting them work through their paces without author interference.
And two of the most interesting characters are never seen, not even in flashback. York does a terrific job of characterizing Fleur’s parents–free-spirited hippieearthmotherchick Maggie and her staid, stern Vietnam vet boyfriend Shane–through reminiscences of Maggie’s friends Gemma Rae and Bernie. Due to the positioning of the bodies, most of their friends assume Shane killed Maggie then turned the gun on himself, but Fleur’s investigation casts some doubt on this theory. Enough for the police to reopen the case. And by the time York works her magic, you won’t be able to believe either one could have shot the other. And therein lies the mystery.
What is not a mystery is the problems Fleur is having in her relationship with Abby. York’s portrait of a disintegrating love is both realistic and sad as she makes us witness to Abby’s unyielding practicality and inability to understand why Fleur has to do this as well as Fleur’s irresponsibility in running off and leaving Abby to do the lion’s share of the work at home. Their telephone conversations are deliciously awkward, enough for the reader to want to scream at both of them, “For Chrissakes, bend a little, willya?”
Less successful for me was the choice Fleur must make once she finds out the truth about her parents’ deaths. I can’t say too much without spoiling the plot, but we know what she’ll do all along, so the decision she makes is not surprising. I would have rather had more of a moral dilemma, more of a reason for her to go the other way. Perhaps even gone the other way. However, I’m a pretty perverse reader who loves characters that defy his expectations. Other readers will applaud Fleur’s choice and appreciate how it’s reinforced by the information found in her Aunt Golda’s letters.
But no matter how you feel about Fleur’s choice, there’s much to like in this interesting, affecting story of one woman’s search for the truth about her past and how it affects her future.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler