May 10, 12
Read in May, 2012
Spring is upon us and I can’t help but feel inspired by the lush greenery that surrounds me. I want to open up all the windows in my house and let the healing power of nature seep in. It’s always astounding how books seem to find you at the right time, the most appropriate time. This is what happened with Barbara O’Neal’s The Garden of Happy Endings. I picked it up randomly one night, drawn to it by the cover and title. It promised a certain happiness and calm that I couldn’t resist. The main character is Elsa Montgomery. A reverend of a small church in Seattle. Tragedy immediately envelopes Elsa and she’s forced to question her beliefs (or lack there of) in this moment of complete shock and horror. Distraught and despondent, Elsa returns to her hometown of Pueblo, Colorado. Her sister, Tamsin, is going through her own personal breakdown. Together they help rebuild each other’s lives through food, gardening and community involvement while searching for hope and happiness amidst the ruins.
There is an elegant quality to O’Neal’s writing that seems to transcend the genre she’s placed. Passages in The Garden of Happy Endings read like poetry. Images of the garden they are creating and the food that they produce evoke a visceral reaction in the reader. It is like watching spring unfold through the pages of a novel.
The themes of loss, regret, confusion, betrayal, fear and love are all emotions that we, as readers, can identify with and understand. The characters of Elsa, Tamsin, Father Jack and Deacon McCoy allow us to watch real people struggle to find both their place in the world and the happiness that they hope resides there.
I recently read an essay by O’Neal on Writer Unboxed where she detailed the need writers have for writing to answer their “central question.” The question that O’Neal wanted to answer with The Garden of Happy Endings eluded her at first. She ultimately understood the question to be about what happens when something gets in the way of your passion, of your inner drive, or your life choices. I think it’s interesting that O’Neal wrote about her desire to answer questions with her novels because I feel it is this quality that made The Garden of Happy Endings so rich with detail and the evolution of the characters’ lives.
This novel is vivid and honest. Hopeful and calming. Powerful and evocative. Subtle and charming. I devoured it and am now inspired to check out all of Barbara O’Neal’s earlier work.