Review: The Moonflower Vine, Jetta Carleton

Tara read this book late last year, and she said she was shocked by the turns the book took, which, y’all, if you are ever trying to convince me to read a book?  Shocked is a good adjective to use.  Family saga will get you nowhere.  I cannot at present think of any family sagas I have read and disliked (or any I have read and liked, actually), but I have conceived a violent prejudice against them.  In this case, Tara said both shocked and family saga, and shocked won out.  Sometimes that happens.

And now that shocked no longer looks like a word to me, I will proceed.  The Moonflower Vine opens with an idyllic family reunion over several summer evenings in Missouri.  Matthew and Callie’s three grown daughters – Jessica and Leonie, and the much-younger Mary Jo – have come home for a vacation, and at night they come together and watch the moonflowers blossom.  It is all very loving and affectionate, and Mary Jo thinks that she will remember this time forever.

Shocking flashbacks ensue.  We learn about the family’s past from the perspective of each of the family members.  The focus of each section was – more or less – the romantic life of the viewpoint character for that section, and how it affected the rest of the family.  We see how they caused each other pain, and how they helped each other.  We see Mathy, the emotional and physical center of the book, how the family spins around her and how they manage without her.  (That’s not a spoiler – it’s clear from the beginning that Mathy’s gone.)

Okay, the flashbacks aren’t all that shocking.  I mean they aren’t Forever Amber shocking, or even The Group shocking – they’re good flashbacks because they create a solid, layered, complex family dynamic.  They’re good flashbacks because they cause the story to unfold in a way that I like: starting with the end, and gradually revealing how they got there.  The Moonflower Vine is a beautifully constructed, beautifully told story.

How do you like your plot twists?  Gentle and inevitable (as here!) or punch you in the stomach (like Fingersmith)?

Other reviews:

Books and Cooks
Killin’  Time Reading
Neglected Books Page

If I missed your review, let me know!

Giles Goat-Boy, John Barth

This book and I got off to a rocky start. Last time I was at the library, I picked up a bunch of books that I thought might be good, by authors who are all those weird fantasy realists and postmodern and metafictiony. I got the rest of Salman Rushdie’s books that I haven’t read – except, annoyingly enough, The Satanic Verses, which is the one I wanted to read first because I was pretty sure I was going to like it the least – and I got several books by Italo Calvino, and I got Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth. (And Invitation to a Beheading, which is neither here nor there.) So I asked my sister what I wanted to read, The Baron in the Trees or Shalimar the Clown or Giles Goat-Boy, and she thought Giles Goat-Boy was a sweet little children’s story so she said to read that one so I did.

I mean, I don’t know if you know this, but it’s about a kid who’s raised as a goat, and the university is the universe; so there you have the central conceits. There are a lot of things like the Second Campus Riot and then the west side of campus and the east side of campus had the Quiet Riot and like – okay, whatever, I will admit that the long segment of world history refigured for a university became a little trying (I guess if I’d thought it was funny, it might have been better), and the I-am-a-goat bits irritated me. I kept having to put the book down and have a brief silent soliloquoy about Why, why, why, why? which is how I sometimes feel about postmodern things. This book is damn weird, and I didn’t like it at all, so I set myself a goal: Read until chapter four of the second section, and then you can quit. After I decided that, I had a dream in which I was in jail for something, and they took us on a field trip to the bookshop, but they wouldn’t let me look at any of the good books. I could only look at the lame books. And inside my head I was thinking I will not let them break my spirit!

I was very, very close to abandoning the entire enterprise. But I sensibly consulted The Internet, and The Internet assured me that I was quite right. Giles Goat-Boy does get off to a weird start, and the university-history thing is dated and weird. The Internet also told me that The Sot-Weed Factor might be more my thing, and that John Barth, in spite of all his weirdness, does some damn good storytelling. And I am all about plot. I know a lot of people just rejoice in the joyous joys of writing, and I do too, but honestly, if there’s not a good plot there, and if it’s not being advanced well, it’s just no good. That was why (I know it’s not the generally-held opinion) I like The Ground Beneath Her Feet so much better than Midnight’s Children, which was a very cool idea and a beautifully written book but sort of carried the plot along in fits and starts. Whereas The Ground Beneath Her Feet goes steadily along, with things happening – love story, goats, photography, and all the rest and so forth.

I really was determined to get to my chapter-four cutoff point, and the thing is, I just didn’t do it. After a while I tipped it off my bedside table in my sleep, and then I read Ender’s Shadow and Ender’s Game, and then I obtained from another library branch The Satanic Verses and read that, and then I wanted to read Walk Two Moons which I always see all over my house so I looked and looked and I couldn’t find it so instead of that I read Chasing Redbird and then I hunted for Walk Two Moons some more and the damn book was nowhere but I did find Back Home, which I’d been frantically hunting for after I read Good Night, Mr. Tom earlier this month, so I read that, and then my mother got Understanding the Borderline Mother, which my family’s been dying to read because we love reading about BPD, on PaperbackSwap, and I was halfway through that and I realized that there is just no part of me that even remotely wants to read Giles Goat-Boy.

So I stopped trying.

Oh well.