Review: Bellflower by Mary Vensel White

In 2012, author Mary Vensel White sent me her book The Qualities of Wood, a small town mystery about a compelling main character and a complicated marriage.  So I was happy when she sent me her latest book, Bellflower. It’s described as a “novel in moments”,  a book of vignettes encompassing the lives of three to four interconnected families. It’s about family relations, the passage of time, and the daily events that make up a life.

Interestingly, she describes this as a book that can be read in any order, or that a reader could choose to read only parts about one family rather than the other two.  That’s an interesting idea, but I’m really not someone who’s going to hop around in a book – I tend to like order — so I read this book from start to finish.  I question whether readers will actually choose to read a book by moving around, and I also wonder whether a book designed in this fashion can be better than one that builds and reveals information in a deliberate sequence.

That said, I really liked this book about three families, the Moores, the Hanleys, and the Hallowiczes. White has taken an understated approach to this book, which has drama but not melodrama.  There are family tragedies, infidelity, pregnancies and illnesses. But mostly it’s the in-between stuff — work, relationships, child-rearing. Janet and Glen Hanley are a couple with a struggling marriage, raising two daughters.  Terri Moore is a divorced mother who unexpectedly becomes a grandmother. Elizabeth Hallowicz is an older woman who’s never gotten over the accidental death of her young son.

The book covers a fairly long time-span — we see children grow up and have children themselves.  For a short novel, though, I found it occasionally a bit hard to follow all the different characters and timelines.  And there are so many different characters and perspectives, it might have been nicer to have more time with some of the characters.  I seemed to connect most with the Moore family, for example, and never felt I got to know the Hanleys very well.

Vensel writes with a lot of detail, giving the reader vivid images of the characters and their surroundings.  She focuses on the little things, and why those little things are important.

But that last night, these were the only impressions: darkness, spicy pepperoni and melted cheese, finger-smudged wine glasses, the streetlights, his mother’s perfect gesture, the weighted duffel bag, his father’s choked goodbye at the bus station. Because she had stayed behind to get started on the dishes, turning her back after a brief embrace. And they’d used paper plates, he remembered that, and plastic utensils from the restaurant. When the bus pulled from the station, leaving a trail of smoky puffs, he imagined her standing over the kitchen sink in her green sweater, peering through the window and into the dark, nothing to do.

Most of the book takes place in the community of Bellflower, California.  I did wish that the book had a stronger sense of place – it’s built around neighboring families, but the events occur in many different locations, and I never got a strong feeling that this book was about a neighborhood.  

I appreciated that there’s drama in this book but not melodrama.  Tragic and difficult things happen, and the families in this book have to deal with those things — but there is also happiness, and strength, and love.  This is a book about families that are probably much like our own.

Note: I received a complimentary advance copy of this book from the author and publisher Winter Goose Publishing.  The book will publish on February 13, 2019.

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