December Read of the Month: “Perennials,” by Julie Cantrell

Julie Cantrell

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

If you’re looking for a heart-warming novel to put under someone’s tree this holiday season, Julie Cantrell’s Perennials should top your list—but of course snag a copy for yourself first. This first-rate tale of love and loss, betrayal and forgiveness, weakness and strength, is Cantrell’s fourth novel.

From book clubs to garden clubs, and yoga classes to church groups—this novel holds wide appeal, especially for those who enjoy the stories of Cassandra King, Erika Marks, Karen White, and Lisa Wingate. The novel moves back and forth in time from 1979 to 2016, and across the country from Oxford, Mississippi, to Phoenix, Arizona.

Eva, called Lovey by those who truly know her, finds herself torn between a high-powered career and a second chance at finding love and meaningful connection. Destructive relationships drive the plot and character development in this story that is all about survival and recovery, blooming and new beginnings.

Lovey flees her Oxford home soon after graduation when Fisher asks her to marry him. She loves him but isn’t ready for marriage. Besides, Lovey’s older sister Bitsy is making her life miserable, always lying and accusing her of one rotten thing after another. Lovey can’t understand why her parents won’t take up for her, at least assure her privately that they don’t believe the lies.

Although Lovey finds success in Phoenix in an advertising firm, her life is far from perfect. Her boss is a dragon lady, and long-time boyfriend Reed turns out to be married with children. She wonders how Reed could have betrayed not only her, but his wife and children, and how she could have misunderstood his true nature.

In the midst of launching a huge advertising campaign, Lovey gets a call from her parents, begging her to come home immediately. She resists; they insist. That mantra they’d drilled into her, “Family First,” finally persuades her. Every astute reader will suspect such urgency is more than a request to help plan her parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary party, especially when her mother, Laurel, hardly eats a bite of food.

Lovey’s first flame, Fisher, reenters her life, because his landscaping company is installing a memory flower garden on their farm. It will be a surprise gift from her father, Chief, to her mother on their landmark anniversary. As Lovey helps Fisher with the plantings, sparks reignite—until Bitsy informs Lovey that Fisher is practically engaged to another woman. Lovey’s not about to insert herself between another couple, not after the disastrous romance in Phoenix. She’s “been there, shattered by the person you trust most in the world. The one you love and the one you believe loves you in return.”

The importance of fidelity shines throughout this story. Lovey’s father confesses he could have been unfaithful to Laurel, but chose not to, leading Lovey to muse that his “choice has made all the difference, not only in our lives, but in the lives of every generation that will follow.”

As she flips through family photographs, Lovey wonders how she can find the little girl in those pictures, “that sweet, innocent Lovey again. The one who trusted everyone, who felt loved by them too . . .The spunky Lovey who was content building camps and catching fish.” She notices her sister Bitsy looked happy, too, in those early pictures, and then something changed. Lovey thinks it was documented in one photo, snapped at a moment when their mother has told Lovey she was “the strongest girl in the world,” and Bitsy is looking at Lovey with hatred, feeling “pushed to the side” while Lovey basked in their mother’s adoration. Lovey wonders if that was when the jealousy started.

The parents work diligently to get the sisters to make up, but forgiveness seems impossible while Bitsy tries to destroy her sister’s happiness. Nonetheless, forgiveness is one of the family’s “f” words—no, not the infamous f-bomb—family, friends, faith, forgiveness—so Lovey keeps trying.

Cantrell presents Chief as an example of a good husband, never more so than when he lifts a glass and toasts his wife: “To the devotion, compassion, and kindness Laurel offers all of us—a perennial kind of love.” What a lovely, loving compliment, recognizing the power and strength of woman’s love.  And Laurel offers this praise in return: “I love you for building me up and for never tearing me down. For seeing my flaws and forgiving the all. For finding the good in me, especially when I struggle to see it in myself. And for showing our girls how a woman should be treated, with dignity and kindness and equal respect.” With such wise parents behind them, how have the daughters’ paths gone astray? Laurel lets them know they have “both been giving too much of [themselves] to the wrong people, the wrong goals,” and warns that “you can’t give anybody so much of yourself that if he runs off with it, there’s nothing left of you.”

While the novel embraces a Christian philosophy, it also gives a nod to the benefits of yoga and meditation. In a spiritual moment, Lovey has a vision of a woman who could be of any faith and culture: “Her name no longer matters. Whether she is Kachina woman, Hera, Kuan Yin or Mary, she is here, timeless and omnipotent, representing all things feminine and calming, wise and eternal.” She speaks to Lovey: “Strong I am strong. And she is “no longer a wise, mysterious ancestor. She is me.” She will no longer allow herself to be belittled or defined by anyone else.

Lovey has a choice to make between her advertising career and small town life with the man she loves, and by the novel’s conclusion, she has grown strong enough to make the right choice, the one that will help her rediscover the spunky little girl she once was.

Cantrell’s writing is straightforward and easy to read, yet there’s plenty here for champions of literary fiction to love. An hourglass charm symbolizes the passage of time and illustrates one of the book’s themes: that you never know how much time you have, that you have to seize the moment, live now. And fireflies are used to great effect near the end. Garden analogies are developed throughout the story, from referencing the Garden of Eden to my favorite: “Everything in life can be explained by a garden.” This is serious women’s fiction at its finest.

Julie Cantrell is an award-winning New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, teacher, and speaker. She has served as editor-in-chief of Southern Literary Review and has earned starred reviews by both Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. Cantrell is a recipient of the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellowship and was named a finalist for the 2017 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Fiction Award.

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