Wednesday, January 7, 2015

FLORA by Gail Godwin

Flora and Helen are quite a pair, isolated on a mountain in North Carolina during a polio outbreak in the mid-1940s.  Flora is the kind-hearted 22-year-old cousin of Helen’s mother.  Flora is best known for crying at the drop of a hat, and she suffers from a serious case of low self-esteem, once buoyed by letters from Helen’s grandmother, Nonie, who recently passed away.  Helen is a 10-year-old brat, but everyone cuts her a lot of slack as a motherless, and now grandmotherless, child.  Her father, the local high school principal, copes by over-imbibing and by dashing off in the summers to work on secret atomic projects in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Now that Nonie is gone, Helen needs a caretaker for this particular summer, and her father recruits Flora, who brings unwelcome good cheer and under-appreciated cooking skills.  Nothing Flora does is good enough for Helen, and then a delivery boy of Flora’s age, Finn, catches the eye of both girls.  He is basically recovering from PTSD, so that now we have our triangle of misfits.  Helen begins daydreaming that Finn will move into their home, once used as a haven for “recoverers” of all sorts.  Finn’s obvious preference for the company of Flora makes Helen even more resentful of Flora’s presence, but Helen’s frequent hurtful comments just seem to inspire Flora to show Helen more sympathy.  Helen will look back on this time period as a very boring summer for the most part, but the author hints at tragedies to come.  I really thought that all three characters deserved a break, but life isn’t fair, and I wasn’t sure what to expect in the end.  One reviewer compared this story to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and I think there are some definite similarities, although this book does not have an unreliable narrator.  Thank heavens.

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