Review by Bonnie Armstrong
Tina Egnoski won the 2008 Black River Chapbook Contest with a collection of short stories, Perishables. Reviews of that work mention that she is a fine storyteller of the human condition whose fast-paced and dynamic prose generate an emotional intensity coupled with appropriate restraint. Egnoski continues this excellent writing with the publication of her first novel, In the Time of the Feast of Flowers, winner of the 2010 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize.
Crisp, realistic dialogue, quick turns of phrase, and poetic images and metaphors draw us quickly into Abby Newman’s 1970s world. It is a simpler time than the present, and Abby’s childhood in a small town on Florida’s east coast seems idyllic as the children wander through woods and explore the nearby waterways. But the idyllic might be based on deception and repression. As Abby says of her town: “High above all this – a water tower shimmered in hazy heat. My younger brother Kurt called it a bionic spider. Its dome-shaped body, held up by five thin legs, did look to us like something from a science fiction movie. There, in large block letters, our town motto was printed: Hear, Speak, See No Evil.”
As the story proceeds, the insecurities and secrets lurking below the overlay of contentment are revealed. Life and relationships, Abby finds, are like the east Florida coast, built on limestone and eroded by water into “caves, springs, underground streams and sinkholes that can open suddenly and swallow trees and cars, even a house. In essence, my teacher joked, we have built our lives on a slice of Swiss Cheese.”
In Abby’s mind the town has two flaws. The first is an enormous metal dragon, built by an eccentric old man and painted green and orange. The dragon is visible from most locations and becomes a talisman to young Abby. “To others he was an eyesore and an unnerving presence. To me, the dragon seemed omnipotent. He watched, he knew my thoughts, calculated my every step, every misstep. Benevolent god-beast, he was my conscience.”
The second flaw is her best friend, Dana Massey. From the age of six, Abby has yearned to be as pretty, confident, and daring as Dana. And yet Dana lies and exaggerates and lives in a dismal part of town: “The house was a ramshackle stucco with a lopsided front porch, a poorly patched tarpaper roof and a revolving door of stepfathers, all coincidentally, according to Dana, named Sin.” Her mother is cool (allowing the girls to call her Kitty), artistic and free-spirited, but often drinking too much and not always paying attention to what goes on in her daughter’s life. By contrast, Abby’s mother is a nurse, and her father a history buff who tells his children about the original native people. Dana finds Abby’s home sterile and her mother nerve-wracking. Though Abby talks of Dana as a flaw, deep-down Abby believes she, herself, is the flawed one.
Then in the summer of 1976 when they are sixteen, Dana initiates Abby into a level of sexual intimacy that Abby can’t resist. Abby feels guilty and worries constantly about Dana’s fluctuating interest in her. As their senior year begins, Dana leads Abby into yet another forbidden experience. Sneaking into empty houses of people they know, at first they merely snoop and take small mementoes, but finally Dana steals a valuable paperweight from the home of a minister. Dana eventually loses interest in the hobby, as she seems to be losing interest in Abby, but Abby entices her to continue. For Abby, snooping through other people’s homes is the one aspect of her life where she feels in control. Then the girls’ relationship unravels when Dana becomes interested in Olen, a popular male athlete. Though Abby finds some solace with other friends and joins the yearbook staff, her heart is still obsessed with Dana.
When Dana becomes pregnant, Abby happily takes charge. As she guides Dana through an abortion, she is certain they will now regain their closeness. But as events unfold and secrets are revealed, Abby realizes Dana has not only lied but betrayed her as well. Now, in this land Ponce de Leon once named Pascua Florida (the Feast of Flowers, a Spanish term referring to the Easter season ), Abby is reborn as she confronts painful truths about Dana, herself and relationships. Abby leaves fantasies behind and takes responsibility for herself, and as she does, the flaws of her life vanish; even the water tower motto is replaced by the name of the town – Sterling.
Egnoski uses ecology, geology and place as metaphors for the social and personal fabric of Abby and her friends and family. She sprinkles enough elements of the 1970s throughout the story to provide a sense of the time without making it the main focus. She also weaves local Indian history into the narrative, providing a prospective that reminds us that although life in the land of the Feast of Flowers changes from one people to another, we all must struggle with defining ourselves and deciding how we will live our lives.
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