Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum

I am a complete sucker for the color blue and for flowers so the cover of this book grabbed me from the get go. I was less enchanted by the idea of a missionary story centered around a family with four daughters since unlike the rest of the world, I didn't love Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. (I loathed it, actually.) And while there were quite a few echoes of the aforementioned book, Meldrum's novel was gripping enough to keep the pages turning so that I could uncover the whole story here.

Opening with the imminent trial of mother Seena for the death of her husband Dick, this tale of family, relationships, religion, and race set in both Michigan and a small village in West Africa, takes turns both expected and unexpected. Dick and Seena's marriage is increasingly broken and showing cracks when Dick, a very devout Catholic, decides with the help of the local parish priest that the family, including all four daughters, Mary Grace, Mary Tessa, Mary Catherine, and Amaryllis, should go to Africa as missionaries. This ill-fated decision will change so much in all of their lives.

Dick Slepy is a pathologist whose obsession with his wife has manifested itself by him becoming more and more controlling and possessive. Seena gave up her schooling to marry Dick and she becomes more and more distant to both her husband and her daughters as her regrets mount. The Marys are all very different from one another. Mary Grace is a beautiful boy magnet while Mary Catherine is extremely pious. Mary Tessa questions everything around her in life and Amaryllis, the different one, is a synesthete who views everything, observes everything, and notices everything almost from an outsider's perspective. These six people are on a collision course with everything they know and believe as Africa distills their truest beings.

The novel is chock full of betrayal, dysfunction, and forbidden love. Each of the characters keeps secrets from the others and they all stay mostly aloof from one another. Even Seena's decided preference for Amaryllis over her other daughters comes off as a convenience in her mostly detached life. The novel's narration changes from chapter to chapter so that each of the Slepys has a chance as the major focus. And yet none of the characters come off as particularly appealing. They are all, with the possible exception of Amaryllis, so self-involved as to be blind to anything outside of themselves. Meldrum's writing is well done but somehow never quite drew me in. There was so much going on, so much of different significance in each character, the loaded history of the Slepy family, as well as the cultural differences and incorrect assumptions once they are in Africa that it was hard to settle where to place my attention. And the back and forth in time allowed the narrative tension to wax and wane a bit too much for my liking. Well written and complex, it is proving difficult to explain why this just didn't strike a cord with me but it didn't.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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