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Book Review: Ella in Bloom, by Shelby Hearon

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In Shelby Hearon’s latest novel, Ella in Bloom, Ella is a widow with a 14-year-old daughter, trying to make ends meet in the picturesque Louisiana town of Old Metairie. Having run away while in college with a deeply unsuitable boy, who dumped her soon afterwards, she has always been the black sheep of her genteel family in Austin, Texas. And she’s been permanently in the shade of her older sister, Terrell, who married well and was a pillar of Austin society until her tragic death in a plane crash.

Ella, working as a plant-sitter — she waters the gardens of rich clients while they’re out of town — is so down-at-the-heels that she has to steal a dress to wear to her sister’s funeral. She’s built an imaginary life of gentility and ease, which she passes off to her mother as reality. But when Ella and her daughter Birdie travel to Austin for her mother’s birthday, she learns from Terrell’s husband Red — an old friend and confidant — that her sister had been having an affair, and that the marriage was in ruins at the time of her death.

As she draws closer to Red, Ella finds that she is not alone in her compulsion to meet her mother’s impossible standards. Terrell, Red and even her ineffectual professor father have all been aiding and abetting her mother’s self-deception — by telling her what she wants to hear. Hiding at the core of this dishonesty is another secret Ella discovers at last. But as she finds out the truth behind her sister’s seemingly perfect life, she draws closer to Red, to true love, and to accepting the world — her world — as it truly is.

The phrase “beautiful lies you could live in” kept rattling around my head as I read Ella in Bloom. Never mind that it’s an obscure album by ’60s singer Tom Rapp; it neatly sums up both the plot and the action. This is a story about lying: self-deception and the deceiving of others. In some cases the lying is more or less harmless, in that only the perpetrators are damaged. Such is the case with Ella’s imaginary life, which she describes lovingly to her mother in letters — the main point of contact between parent and child.

Ella lives in a grotty house in the wrong part of town, with a garden described as “a scrap of high grass partially shaded by the branches of a neighbor’s sagging willow and by our own overgrown oleander.” By contrast, the imaginary garden that she conjures for her mother features “redolent old roses blooming against a weathered low brick wall…”

Sometimes, immersed in my invention, my hands would move as if handling real flowers, and I would arrange in the air bouquets of the old roses, clustering near-chocolate mauves, ecrus like faded parchment, dusty pinks, creamy whites, until I could almost see them.

At least Ella’s inventions give her some pleasure. Her mother, on the other hand, has built an inviolable wall of proprieties and social niceties around herself and her husband that is only strengthened by personal tragedy. It is her single-minded refusal to let anything past this barrier that has led, directly and indirectly, to her daughters drifting into unsatisfying lives.

This is the Burlington-based author’s 15th book, and the writing is as polished as one might expect from a seasoned writer. Hearon has a good eye, and ear, for the quirks of people and places. The social contrasts of Old Metairie come to life — the way the streets in the moneyed part of town twist and turn to discourage drive-throughs from less salubrious neighborhoods; the fittings of the Country Club with its “antique thirty-six-foot French pewter bar and inlaid pewter wall panels;” the politics of hiring a plumber after a tropical storm has flooded the town.

Hearon’s cast is drawn to a convincingly human scale. Bedeviled as most of them seem to be with the punishing need to maintain their various façades, her characters slouch, sweat and are irritable, but are also touchingly grateful for the tiny epiphanies the plot allows them.

Ella’s mother, with all the armor of her immaculate life, is satisfyingly annoying, and her husband — a devoted reader of health newsletters who is forever on the brink of taking up walking for exercise — achieves a measure of poignancy. Her teenagers are less successful, slightly too juvenile and sketchy, but this is a short book and there’s little room for any real exploration of character. Appropriately enough for a story which is all about surface, there isn’t any great depth to Ella in Bloom: It’s a diverting entertainment rather than stirring drama.

There is also something unfinished about the book. I found it hard to tell in what way Ella had actually “bloomed” by the end. She has found a man, to be sure, and finally abandoned the Sisyphean task of pleasing her mother. But in doing so she only attains a measure of stability and normalcy that surely she has had a right to all along.

There is no sweeping resolution, no breakthrough — Ella’s parents’ lives are as paralyzed as ever, although her father has “begun to walk in the house.” There could even be more gardening, if only as a richer background to Ella’s own developing self-confidence. With the promise of the title, Hearon seems to be setting the book up for a weightier outcome, but the almost Chekhovian plot of lies and self-deceptions does not find a concrete resolution worthy of its theme.

Instead, the story finishes quietly, on the same human scale it has kept all the way through. This book takes the reader on a gentle, sentimental journey, and those in need of more robust sensations should perhaps book alternative passage. But for those in need of a little romance and a fundamentally good-hearted tale, Ella in Bloom will doubtless be as welcome as a stroll amongst the roses.

Shelby Hearon will read from Ella in Bloom at 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 25, at the Book Rack in Winooski.

Ella in Bloom, by Shelby Hearon. Alfred A. Knopf, 259 pages. $23.

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