NOTE: This summary contains spoilers.
Set in the Midwest, this novel centers on three generations of women, each with her own set of problems, and each feeling similarly stuck. Evelyn (Laura’s mother) was pushed out of her role as a professor when WWII ended and resents the loss of her career. As a young girl, Laura feels the distance and disappointment of her mother and, in what seems to be a reaction to her own upbringing, becomes a woman whose life is based on service to her family. Both Evelyn and Laura marry self-centered men and have affairs. Grace (Laura’s daughter, who works in a health food store and has never left her hometown, having attended the local college) begins to understand her mother’s life only after her mother dies of cancer and she reluctantly assumes the role of peacekeeper between her brother and father. The novel climaxes when Grace finds her drug addicted brother (Michael) squatting in her grandmother’s vacant house. Fearing her brother’s future as an addict, she pleads for them both to leave their father and start a new life somewhere else. Unfortunately, this never happens and the novel takes a dramatic turn when Grace’s father (Gabe, an alcoholic) shoots and kills her brother. Grace grows to hate her father, whom she refuses to visit in jail, and, in what she believes to be an expression of self-hate, has a sexual relationship with a crass and unattractive man. Throughout the novel, flowers and trees serve as symbols of hope and beauty, so it’s fitting that, in the final scene, Grace raises money to create a community garden honoring her deceased family members. It is at an event celebrating the opening of the garden that she meets her biological father, and the generational cycles of loss and disappointment has a chance to be broken. Questions of free will and self-determination (especially as it exists in the lives of women) figure prominently in this novel.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “It was the end of lilac season, that brief, heady time. The long mid-western winter retreated, the sky was a blue vault unrolling forever, and the lilacs came on” (1).
- “The war hung over everything, the excitement and the dread of what happened in those unimaginable places half a world away, where bombs fell and armies marched and there were so many dead that they too were a kind of army” (7).
- “And yet history shifted underneath your feet, she knew that. The present was a dizzy perch that every so often began to spin and slide. If you built a plane you were also bringing into being the sheets of flame that sprang up in the bomber’s path, the ruined town, the ghosts that blew through it like rags of smoke, and then the town rebuilt and its memories put into museums. You held on to your life with both hands, you told yourself pay attention to this moment, the here and now. But one minute passed into the next, and then the next, and at some point you looked back and everything was over and people called it history” (9).
- “She was tired of managing, coping, arranging, bearing up well. Maybe that was what real grief did, prostrated you, rendered you incapable of being so idiotically useful” (14).
- If you lived in a small-to-medium city, like this one, for some number of years, or almost all your life, as Laura had, there were circles of people you knew, from the different layers of your life, different strata, like an archaeological dig. Fallen-away friends from middle school, old rivals, old sweethearts . . . People you’d forgotten all about, until they appeared at your door, selling lawn care services or running for city council” (26-27).
- “They hadn’t seen any of it coming. How could you? There had been some of what was considered normal adolescent screwup trouble, then episodes of careless, sullen, evasive behavior. Then the all-out catastrophes, the confrontations, the promises made and immediately tossed aside. Who was he, or who had he always been, so practiced at lying, at anger, at horrible talk? Laura’s nerves were still shredded from all the emergencies and panics, and the effort of forgiving her son again and again” (32).
- “Her notes were meticulous. The structure and sequence of her ideas were both logical and fluid. She felt she might distinguish herself, given time. There was a part of her that was deeply contented with such work, and only with such work. It absorbed her, but it also lightened her, freed her from herself” (45).
- “Her ankles were cold; they were making her steps clumsy. Andrew had to slacken his pace to keep from bounding away from her. He often walked for exercise and was a believer in the curative powers of fresh air. It was another of his principles, maintaining good health. Wasn’t that admirable? Yes, but it was also infuriating, as were the entirety of his thought-through notions, his reasons for distrusting soft-cooked eggs and voting for Hoover, some number of which she had already heard and some unknown number of which she had not, at least not yet. This would be her life with him, or some portion of it: the receiving of opinions” (65).
- “But it was not so entirely strange, in the drifting, fitful process of dying, with so much that was misleading or uncertain, like a dream you might still wake from, that she would go back to the time when all possibilities were hers. Driving into the storm, all amazement, the rain hitting the glass like a volley of diamonds” (67).
- “She was a townie through and through, and she had all the townie’s comfortable familiarity and comfortable contempt, both at ease with and chafing against the place. Every block seemed to hold some of her history, her own personal bronze plaques: here she’d broken off a portion of a front tooth jumping from someone’s porch steps, here had lived a boy she’d had a crush on in sixth grade” (118).
- “She drove back to work through the pretty, leafy streets where she’d grown up, the houses decorated with pumpkins and seasonal wreaths, or maybe flying the team flag for another doomed football season, or one of those gift-shoppy banners depicting autumn leaves. The same mass-produced, expected stuff you saw every year, and she thought for the hundredth time that she had to move to Alaska or Costa Rica or anywhere that people didn’t take so much pride in commercially available self-expression” (129).
- “The store and the people who worked and shopped there made up a world of its own where people cared about fair trade and the treatment of animals and the genetic manipulation of crops and the loss of honeybee populations and everything else that was made to seem quaint, an amusing affectation, by people who ate fast food and spent their weekends at shopping malls” (157).
- “Where did you go when you died? Anywhere? Maybe you turned back into atoms. Sparks like colored fireflies, like bits of light scattering overhead, chasing the music. Why was she thinking such a thing at such a time, with a boy’s warm mouth up against her ear, with small rippling explosions passing through her skin? Her hands were warm and stealthy. She let them go where they wanted to go” (164).
- “What a wonderful invention, the body. This lovely cage of skin, with its tides of breath sifting in and out . . . It was an entire garden of sensations, the ordinary ones, and then you turned up the dial” (164).
- “And wasn’t that just like her, to ignore a problem with her own health, while she worried and fussed about everybody else’s? It was exasperating, it was enough to make you angry, if you let it, for the backwards reason that she had not valued herself enough to spare the rest of them her sudden need” (180).
- “Palliative care. There was no point in getting angry at the doctors. They were magicians who only had so many tricks” (187).
- “Day after day it was almost spring, sometimes a little closer, sometimes a little farther away. Day after day, her mother wandered off, traveled back, disappeared again. The morphine made her float; an oxygen machine tethered her to earth” (193).
- “I had another drink and so did he. And maybe another. We were sliding down a slope of blurry alcoholic conversation, of the kind that makes you feel like you must be saying really amazing things to each other” (200).
- “Genuine true love, the tragic kind that comes with its own movie soundtrack? I couldn’t say. Of course we went on from there, and we settled into our grown-up selves, and somewhere along there you and your brother came along, and life filled up slow, if you measured day by day, and fast if you try to account for years. There was good and bad. Some things on both sides that shouldn’t have happened. But if you really want to know who loves you, look around and see who’s still standing next to you” (204).
- “The sickroom had a smell that trapped you as soon as you walked in. In spite of all the efforts at hygiene and air fresheners, in spite of lilacs and candles and fans. The smell was of something stale, something burdened and heavy. The room was both personal and not so. The personal was being erased from it minute by minute. Death was impersonal. It pulled your loves and hates up by the roots. It rolled right over your likes and dislikes. It took as much as it could of history and memory” (208).
- “The summer heat descended, humid and glassy. You got used to squinting, to the painful look and feel of car hoods, concrete, windows” (237).
- “It was enough like all the other houses in the neighborhood to seem entirely unimaginative, a house that had always been at war with the imagination and determined to impose its functionality on those who lived there, to impress them with its hierarchies of closets and bathrooms” (259).
- “Grace didn’t believe in ghosts or spirits, at least she didn’t think she did. But it was hard not to think of her mother as she moved from the sink to the oven and back again, tasting and chopping and doing her best impersonation of her mother. She felt, not a presence, exactly. Something more earthbound, a better understanding, perhaps, of her mother and the life she had lived. The endless small chores, the worries, never enough time, and always the barely movable obstacles of her husband and children” (265).
- “She started in on her salad. It was hard to taste anything. She felt pointlessly sad, the way she had been sad as an adolescent, without any one particular reason and with no cure for it, unless the reason was the falsity of everything around her: the facsimile of family, the approximation of holiday cheer, the impersonation of Italian food” (279).
- “Now she had to imagine trouble, the great flapping bat shape of it, the different varieties of dangerous and stupid. Dealing? Stealing? And which substance or substances in the witch’s brew of possibilities was he taking?” (288).
- “The music was a scroll of sound unrolling, rolling, rising, swinging for the fences, connecting. Everyone hearing it felt themselves to be lucky. And Grace felt blessed, because for just this little while, on this particular day, there was no better place to be” (320).