I was overjoyed when I first learned that Faith Sullivan had written a sequel to The Cape Ann. It had been a long time coming. The Cape Ann was written in 1988, and Gardenias did not appear until 2005. When I bought it and brought it home I read it in a evening. But I was disgruntled when I closed the back cover on the last page and laid it down.
Gardenias starts off in such a satisfying way. It takes up just where The Cape Ann leaves off; with Lark Erhardt, Lark's mother Arlene, and Arlene's sister Betty riding a train bound to a new life San Diego. Arlene Erhardt has had all she can take of Lark's father's gambling, abusive ways, and Betty had been essentially abandoned by her husband Stan and was languishing in depression at her parents' home, so Arlene decided to pull up stakes and move the three of them from Harvester, Minnesota to San Diego, California.
The novel takes its name from the gardenia bush Arlene, Betty, and Lark plant in the poor soil outside their new home in the housing project erected for the workers in the munitions factories, and it's an apt symbol. Gardenias is on the whole a novel about being transplanted, about new beginnings and new ties to new surroundings, and about all the changing and growing entailed. San Diego during the years of the Second World War is a good setting for such a theme. All the people in the housing project where Lark lives are from somewhere else, having moved to San Diego in search of work, and usually also to get away from something undesirable. And Faith Sullivan has a few things to say about how new surroundings aren't necessarily any better on the whole than the old, and how the changes people undergo aren't always positive or welcome. All well and good. But some of the new outgrowth feels so forced and artificial.
One of the best things about The Cape Ann was the characterization of Arlene Erhardt. In The Cape Ann Lark describes Arlene as a “headlong person” with “instincts as sharp as darts”, and quotes her grandfather, who called her mother a “freethinker”. And at the beginning of Gardenias, Arlene is still the same indefatigable person, with the same admirable ingenuity and drive, and the same open-handed kindness coupled with a refusal to take garbage from anyone or let any conventions stand in her way. One can't help but root for her, and admire her. When Arlene buys furniture on credit and Lark protests, "Grandma says that charge is the road to perdition," Arlene retorts, "I don't want to hear what Grandma says. Grandma's not sleeping on the floor." When Betty comments that she's heard the WACs are "a pretty wild bunch", Arlene sweeps such a hum-drum assessment aside with, "That's what they always say when women want to do something interesting." She also invites Lou, the black man who delivers her and her furniture back to her place, in for a cup of tea. Sullivan doesn't point out how unconventional this behaviour would have been for an American white woman in 1943. But it works because of why Arlene does it. She is not doing it out a super-progressive (not to say anachronistic) sense of social justice, but because there were no black people in Harvester and she sees Lou as exotic, a part of her new world that she is so eager to experience.
But as the novel progresses Arlene falters and begins to disintegrate. Part of this is her husband's fault. Willie Erhardt, Lark's father and Arlene's husband, doesn't change a bit in this novel about growth. He's the same self-serving bully he always was, and has the same total lack of comprehension for or interest in anything Lark or Arlene think or feel. He remains in Harvester, only visiting and writing San Diego in order to harass his wife and daughter.
Arlene could have recovered from Willie's vindictive behaviour, but she's harbouring a secret love for another man, and as Sullivan would have us believe, this turns out to be her undoing, causing her to nearly destroy her relationships with her daughter and sister, to lose her sense of purpose, and to direct her nervous energy and her hunger for love into some dead-end channels. And I don't buy it. I don't believe Arlene, who is generally a shrewd judge of character, would have fallen in love with the man she has, nor that she would allow her unrequited and hopeless love for any man to ruin her life.
There are other facets of her behaviour that don't make sense. Arlene, a woman who set up her own modestly successful business in a small, Depression-era Minnesota town, just seems to accept being stymied professionally and settle for being an administrative assistant in the personnel office at the munitions plant in San Diego. At a time when the war-time economy was booming and employers were willing to hire anyone they could get, she complains she can't get promoted and makes no effort to develop her skills. And the woman who so carefully saved for her own house in Harvester has suddenly become a spend-thrift who cares only about having a nice-looking rental apartment.
Then there's Lark's growing alienation from her mother. Certainly it was unavoidable that Arlene, Betty and Lark's relationships with each other should change, and Sullivan generally navigates these changes with considerable expertise. (The changing dynamic between Arlene and Betty is especially well-handled, as Betty gathers strength and the formerly high-handed Arlene weakens.) In San Diego, Arlene is soley financially responsible for Lark and herself instead of being a housewife and her own boss as she was in Harvester, and that means she has less time for her daughter — and is less emotionally involved with her. And she stops listening to Lark, because she is already so burdened she can't bear to hear how much Lark misses her old life in Harvester. Lark is much less coddled than many children. At nine she is considered old enough to be left alone after school until Arlene and Betty get home from work and to take care of a number of household chores. In The Cape Ann, Lark's sharp, detailed observations of her mother help us to know Arlene. In Gardenias Lark's observations come from more and more of a distance until Arlene's behaviour is no more intelligible than that of a stranger's.
It's always necessary when critiquing a novel to distinguish between those elements of the book that are ineffective and those that one doesn't happen to care for. So it's very difficult for me to determine whether Arlene's tranformation is not believable or if I just hate it. I can't decide between the two possibilities, so I'll just say it's a shame that Lark's viewpoint is the only one we have of her world, since that means we can't help but share her disgust and bewilderment with Arlene's behaviour. Lark's growing detachment from her mother means that we lost touch with Arlene too — and perhaps that Sullivan did as well.
Another Minnesotaen-goes-Californian transformation that doesn't work is that of Betty's husband, Stan, probably because we didn't get to see it unfold. When Stan makes his reappearance in Betty's life, claiming that he's sorry for the way he treated her and professing that he's learned how to think and embraced socialism and charming everyone, well, it was hard not to roll my eyes. I suspect Betty may have been tempted to the the same.
But now I can begin enumerating the things I did like about Gardenias. Betty's transformation is not only utterly believable but satisfying. She does not become the bold and brave and hard-charging person Arlene was, nor does she embrace socialist ideology, but she acquires her own quiet, gentle and irresistible force of will, and even Willie Erhardt doesn't attempt to bully her.
Shirley Olson is another achievement. Shirley is a schoolmate of Lark's, and though they aren't friends and don't even like each other she attaches herself to Lark's family. We never learn much about Shirley's homelife other than it seems to be dreadful — a morass of filth, poverty, and abuse. Shirley's a survivor who will never pass up a chance to grab whatever's in her reach, so she establishes herself as an auxiliary family member in Lark's home, eating whatever she can find, soaking up the kind treatment she gest from Arlene and Betty, playing their piano, and battling Lark for the position of alpha child. Arlene and Betty may feel sorry for Shirley and therefore show her unstinting generosity and unconditional acceptance, but it's Lark who knows, and tells us, how unpleasant Shirley can be. And it is Shirley's presence in the novel that really show us how continued proximity and shared circumstances can build bonds between just about anyone, no matter how incompatible and antagnonistic they are to one another initially. Lark develops famillial relations with her neighbours as well, though fortunately none are so hard to love as Shirley.
And finally Sullivan's biggest accomplishments over the course of both The Cape Ann and Gardenias is her rendering of the genesis of a writer. Lark is a sensitive and observant child (and a narrator similar to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird with her adult-level powers of observation and description and child's sensibilities and behaviour). Lark builds a rich, involved fantasy life out of the elements of her life. The Cape Ann's title refers to the name of the architectural plan Lark and her mother wanted to use for the house they dreamed of building in Harvester. Lark was sure that if she could live in the Cape Ann she'd become the kind of person she wants to be: happy, elegant, talented and self-disciplined, able to twirl batons and stop biting her nails. She also invents stories about a woman she meets on a train and the writer of a letter she finds.
In the first few pages of Gardenias, Lark catches sight of a beautiful, elegantly dressed woman. She becomes infatuated with this woman in the way little girls sometimes are with attractive, older females, and is sure that the woman is a movie star. The woman is indeed a movie actress named Alicia Armand, and over the next few years Lark collects clippings of her idol, sees all her movies, and daydreams of being "discovered" by her. Alicia Armand becomes the first element of her new dream life. Soon to join Alicia and populate an imaginary cabin in the snowy Minnesota woods are the ghosts of Lark's friend Hilly and her Aunt Betty's baby daughter. This dream world of Lark's is her way to escape her own reality and to comfort and amuse herself, but it evolves and takes on its own life and purpose. Lark extracts what confuses and fascinates her from the flotsam and jetsam of life, fantasizes and muses about it, and then in Gardnenias begins to fashion a fictional collage from them, and to write stories in exercise books. These stories are rather odd at times, and have the kind of charming absurdities common to a child's imagination with its limited factual knowledge and worldview, but it's clear that Lark has the vocation and perhaps the talent to become a writer.
Lark, with her writerly ambitons, and with all her mother's resourcefulness and self-reliance and spirit, is such an interesting creation in herself that I am eager to read another novel about her. I can only hope that Sullivan won't make us wait another seventeen years for it.