Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Review: Betty's (Little Basement) Garden by Laurel Dewey

When I was in college, my boyfriend and I were visiting some of his fraternity brothers in their off campus apartment. I didn't know the two guys we were visiting all that well so I was a bit uncomfortable. And as I do when I'm uncomfortable, I babbled away on topics of little to no consequence without letting anyone else get a word in edgewise. What did I latch onto while sitting with these two guys? Of course, I complimented them on the fantastically lush and gorgeous plant sitting in their window. I admitted how many houseplants I had murdered over my college dorm career and asked if they had any tips for me since they clearly had green thumbs. Obviously I didn't notice that my boyfriend and these two guys were all sitting there looking at me with their mouths open in incredulity. After we left, the boyfriend laughed uproariously over the fact that I had gushed over their marijuana plant, agreeing that I did indeed grow up in an ivory tower if I had no idea that that was what the plant was. What can I say? I was sheltered. So the whole pot culture is curious to me and I was intrigued to read Laurel Dewey's novel, Betty's (Little Basement) Garden, about a woman who starts growing marijuana in her basement.

Betty Craven is a widow in her early sixties. She is as conservative, judgmental, and Republican as it gets. She's known for her wonderful parties, her delicious homemade chocolates, her prize-winning garden, and always being put together and perfect. But all of that is a fa├žade. Betty's marriage to her late husband was miserable; he was hateful and she lacked the courage to stand up to him. Her beloved only son, Frankie, died of an overdose, a terrible loss over which she feels crippling guilt. The gourmet chocolate shop she opened after her husband's death collapsed with the economy. And she's having to sell off antiques from her crumbling home just to make ends meet. Life is not going well for Betty. But after she signs a letter to the editor written by a friend arguing a need to limit the number of medical marijuana dispensaries allowed in her little town, her life changes 180 degrees.

One of Betty's coterie of upright, like-minded friends is dying of cancer. When she reluctantly goes to visit Peggy, she meets Peyton, Peggy's nephew, who is clearly a marijuana user. Betty is equal parts repulsed and drawn to him for his similarity to her late son and she is horrified when she discovers that he has taken the beautiful chocolates she made for Peggy, melted them down, and added cannabis to them so that Peggy will have some pain relief in her final days. But the very fact of his doing this plants a seed in Betty's mind. And before she knows it, she has applied to be a medical caregiver herself, is taking on patients, growing marijuana in her basement, starting a relationship with the owner of the Hippy Dippy Heath Food Store, and meeting the people who populate a very different social circle than the one in which she's lived her life so far.

Betty's character is clearly at a crossroads with her life falling down around her feet when she goes from horrified about the idea of legal marijuana to growing and sampling it herself. She is changing her life and outlook practically on a dime, having signed the strident letter to the editor against marijuana and the "criminal element" it brings with it to being completely immersed in the pot culture in a mere seven days. But if her turn around on the issue is quick, the story certainly isn't, taking more than 200 pages to get her there. In the chunk of the book prior to her putting her new decision into practice, there is a large amount of preachy research that does nothing to move the story along thrown at the reader. Apparently everyone Betty meets who is involved in growing or using marijuana (excuse me, cannabis) is a natural philosopher and more enlightened than Betty's narrow-minded, uptight, ignorant, Republican friends. And all of her new friends feel the need to share their life philosophy with Betty, making the book painfully repetitive. Betty remains conflicted about sharing her new life choices with her friends even as she jumps in with both feet and has the privilege of sharing the beauty of the life cycle with her patients. The cannabis activist in the novel suggests that Betty, with her classy (her caregiving business is even called The Classy Joint) and mainstream appearance, should become a vocal and visible symbol of all that is right about legalizing marijuana across the board. Apparently that's what Dewey has chosen to do here, use her character of Betty, a formerly misguided, now enlightened Republican, to further the call for legalization. And that would be fine in a political tract. In a novel, though, it was downright boring, overwhelming any plot and creating incredibly one-dimensional unrealistic characters.  I was terribly disappointed in this novel.

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

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