I really wanted to like this book. It was our book club’s selection for November. I don’t like to be the one jerk who gives it a 1-out-of-5-stars. I also don’t normally take the time to write a negative review. But there is a lot about this book that bothered me. If it were merely bad, I’d not be taking the time. But I see this book as a symptom of the corporate publishing world passing off bad storytelling as great storytelling on an audience that is being conditioned to trust the hype. It’s the literary equivalent of being told that highly-processed food is actually quite nutritious. There are millions of consumers who believe that hype, and are suffering because of it. If I can save just a few discerning readers from wasting their time on this mind junk-food, it will have been worth it. There are spoilers in this review.
Clocking in at 94 chapters, Fresh Water for Flowers is about a woman named Violette, whose husband, Philippe, is abusive. He continually abandons her for other women. They are both caretakers of a cemetery in a small village in France. The responsibility of running the place mainly falls on Violette’s shoulders because Philippe is not exactly hard-working. There is no actual plot to this novel, just hints of a possible plot that surface briefly and then disappear. It mostly consists of Violette narrating episodes in her life, interspersed with her telling the histories of the dead and the living that she has met in the cemetery, interspersed with the diary entry of one cemetery visitor (Irene) who is having an extra-marital affair with an obnoxious high-powered lawyer. Those chapters about Irene and her lawyer-lover degenerated into cliched 50-Shades-of-Grayesque descriptions that had me wondering why I should even care -- the characters are boring and unattractive.
There were chapters told from the point-of-view of Philippe, along with chapters each from the point-of-view of Philippe’s love-interests, Francoise and Genevieve. Violette’s love interest, the enigmatic detective Julien (son of Irene), is so enigmatic that he never really comes alive – he remains a character-concept until the very end.
The biggest problem with this book is that the chronology is mixed-up and seemingly random. Non-chronology can work in shorter stories, but in a novel this length, it was too cognitively demanding. Reading it felt like homework, like figuring out a logic problem in which the disparate pieces had to be assembled before any meaning could be gleaned. I’m a professional storyteller, and I had to really concentrate to understand what is going on and in what order, and why the order was presented as it was. I don’t have an answer.
At Chapter 75, I still didn’t know key information (and my book club meeting was fast approaching), so I skipped ahead to the last chapter and started reading backwards. It was the same effect as I’d been having all along: Chronology is lacking, as if the author had thrown dice to decide which chapter would follow which chapter. The chapters that are Irene’s diary are inserted randomly into the main narrative, and I, the reader, had no idea why they appear where they do. In fact, entire chapters (39 for example) serve no purpose. And then there’s this gem in Chapter 90, when we find out that “Philippe had always been drawn to lower-class women. Girls, bottom-of-the-barrel, the gutter.” No kidding. We just watched Philippe philander his way through the previous 89 chapters. This observation is so obvious that it’s as if the outline notes forgot to be deleted from the final manuscript. Where on earth was the editor to catch this sort of thing?
Violette can be engaging, and she is fairly well-developed. I see why she is appealing to a modern reader. My main problem is that she an is unreliable narrator, and not in a good way. The author seemingly could not decide whether Violette is so marred by tragedy that she is in fact insane, or just has the appearance of insanity because she is an outsider from an orphan background who uses evasion and contradiction as coping mechanisms. This shows a sloppy approach towards the idea of a flawed character—no patterns or internal logic are being presented for this particular character’s flaws, it’s just a heap of random contradictions that the author hopes the reader will take as evidence of not-normal thinking patterns. It's lazy, and clichéd. Here is the thing that good writers know: Every major character trait, from insanity to narcissism, to genius, to the supernatural, must have an internal logic, a set of rules that the reader can discern. Even a lying psychopath has an internal logic as to when he lies and when he tells the truth. It is incumbent on the writer to remain true to the logic of that character. It’s what character motivation (and ultimately, character depth and believability) is all about. I saw none of that here.
Here is another major dis-chronology that damages the story, and Violette’s credibility. It takes until chapter 23 to find out that Violette has a child whom she loves very much—a fact about her that should've come earlier, if only in a sentence—especially since the chapters that are told from Violette’s POV are told in first-person, and include very personal details. You would think that having a child would count among those details. It takes another sixteen chapters to find out that said daughter died in 1993. Around chapter 57 it becomes a mystery as to how her daughter actually died, so there is a discernable outline of an actual interesting mystery-plot emerging at that point, only to disappear for several chapters while the reader is taken on a long detour in the narratives of other characters.
And then there are boundaries. Violette has a problem with them. The author allows the three main men in her life (Philippe, Julien, and Sacha) to ignore the fact that Violette said “no” about something (e.g., going to a wedding, eating dinner) and insist that Violette do what they are telling her to do, which she does. No reason is given for this, no wider lesson to be drawn, except that there is the 50-Shades/Hollywood ethos creeping in again—women secretly love to be dominated, and if the man is forceful enough, the pretty little thing will acquiesce.
Sometimes the writing is good. And sometimes it is awful, and it’s not due to the translator’s error. Consider this gem as Philippe is thinking about his daughter’s death: “Leonine’s death had been bad for his navel. The navel his mother had taught him to contemplate, no matter what. ‘Don’t think of others, think of yourself.’”
Or this, when Violette is with her newest lover, the enigmatic Julien (Sacha is the caretaker of the cemetery who handed his job over to Violette):
“I have the feeling that Sasha’s not far away. That he’s just given Julien directions for planting little shoots of me in my every vital organ.”
What is this metaphor trying to convey? The imagery is ugly, it brings to mind some insane, sadistic surgeon doing a plant-human hybrid experiment. And it’s creepy that Sacha (who is gay) is so mentally present for Violette during an intimate encounter with Julien.
What is the meaning of this novel? What is the central theme that unifies all the narratives? Why tell this story instead of another? I can’t answer these questions.
Last point. There is a meta-theme of this novel that I find disturbing: Intact families produce worse human beings than dysfunctional families.
Violette’s husband Philippe is a thoroughly unlikeable character, not just because he is a serial cheater, but because he is amoral, cruel, and psychopathic. He is also the only character who has married parents that don’t seem to be cheating on each other. The lesson? All the main good-guy characters (Violette, Julien, Sacha, Genevieve) have either no families or dysfunctional families. In case that’s not enough to give intact families a bad reputation, Philippe’s parents are thoroughly unlikeable, achieved through a studious one-dimensional portrayal. Philippe’s mother is the stereotypical rich-witch who dotes on her narcisstic son, while the father is the hen-pecked wimp (and the one who is unintentionally responsible for Leonine’s death). Given how many other characters had the opportunity to give their POV, Philippe’s parents weren’t given this chance. There is no depth or nuance for either parent – just straight cardboard cliché—which is a shame because some depth in these two could’ve made the story more interesting.
That’s my take. Go ahead and read this novel if you want to be in that world. Just be sure you’re well-fortified for the 94-chapter journey by feeding yourself artificially-colored breakfast-cereals, highly-refined breads and chips, and long-shelf-life cheese-product spreads. The outlets that are telling you that all these foods are highly nutritious, are the same outlets giving this novel glowing 5-star reviews and telling you how marvelously written it is. Judge for yourself.