The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman
I was not expecting a novel about a widow with two young girls to be laugh-out-loud funny. Lillian’s husband died suddenly three years ago. She fell apart, but her sister Rachel helped pick up the pieces. Lillian is a textbook illustrator, and her daughters Annabel and Clare are now five and seven. A new work assignment has the whole family taking a gardening class, led by a Dutch master gardener. The class bonds over pizza and gardening, and a couple of romances have potential. Though conversations are very frank, especially when Lillian’s sister-in-law comes to visit, there are no sex scenes. The characterization is top notch and the witty dialogue, both spoken and internal, is great. It will not surprise the reader to learn that the author has three kids and several pets, as Annabel, Clare, and their new friend Bash often steal the scene. This first novel was a delight to read. More, please!
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
I don’t know if a short review can do this book justice, but I’ll try. In less than 200 pages, in silences and in words never spoken, the author tells the story of a miserable childhood and the enduring, deep love of a mother and daughter. Lucy Barton, enduring a lengthy hospitalization for an infection after an appendectomy, is surprised and delighted when her mother arrives in her hospital room for a five-day visit. In the mid-1980s Lucy is married and living in Manhattan with her husband William and two young daughters. The AIDS crisis is just beginning. Lucy’s mother tells her stories about their neighbors in rural Amgash, Illinois, where Lucy grew up, the youngest of three children. Lucy is never so happy as when her mother is talking, but they must carefully talk around and never mention Lucy’s childhood. The family lived in a garage until a relative died, and Lucy vividly remembers being cold, dirty, and often hungry. Then there was her father, who apparently went into rages when he remembered World War II. Her brother and sister still live near their parents, but Lucy escaped, thanks to a college scholarship, and is now a published writer. Elizabeth Strout’s writing here is spare and tender, and very moving, and sure to be nominated for an award or two.