A Memory of Violets
About This Book
In 1912, twenty-year-old Tilly Harper leaves the peace and beauty of her native Lake District for London, to become assistant housemother at Mr. Shaw’s Home for Watercress and Flower Girls. For years, the home has cared for London’s flower girls—orphaned and crippled children living on the grimy streets and selling posies of violets and watercress to survive.
Soon after she arrives, Tilly discovers a diary written by an orphan named Florrie—a young Irish flower girl who died of a broken heart after she and her sister, Rosie, were separated. Moved by Florrie’s pain and all she endured in her brief life, Tilly sets out to discover what happened to Rosie. But the search will not be easy. Full of twists and surprises, it leads the caring and determined young woman into unexpected places, including the depths of her own heart.
I have an earlier Hazel Gaynor novel in my book collection somewhere, about a Titanic survivor, but having acquired it just after reading another deplorable Titanic-based novel, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. Now, however, I am going to have to dig it out, because if A Memory of Violets is anything to go by, Hazel Gaynor just might be one of my new favorite authors.
Characters are the heart and soul of this story, and Gaynor does a wonderful job of crafting characters who defy stereotypes and tug at the heartstrings. The book spans two time periods and two stories: Florrie and her blind little sister Rosie in 1876, two orphans scratching out a bare existence on the dirty streets of London, until a day they are cruelly separated on a busy street; and Tilly in 1912, whom we learn has come to London no just to serve the Flower Girls, but to run away from her own tragic family history. Each character has a distinct voice and story to tell, and as the lives of all these young women both past and present begin to intersect, the story really comes to life. The ending was 100% predictable for me from the very first chapter, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the journey.
The historical detail in this book was breathtaking, and Gaynor did a wonderful job of really pulling me into the story to experience it firsthand. I really felt I was right there on the London streets with Florrie, fighting for my survival against starvation and bitter cold and dubious men. And I equally felt like one of the residents of Violet House, curled up in a parlor armchair after dinner with the other Flower Girls pulled from a life on the streets to work in a new silk-flower factory. From the kind benefactor who oversees all to the malcontent nephew in line to inherit the business, from the crippled midget hiding in Tilly’s wardrobe to the blind Rosie lost in the dark on a London sidewalk, each character felt handcrafted and unique, and somehow all very relatable even though they were all so different.
There is a bit of a romance in the works for Tilly, but this is first and foremost an historical women’s fiction novel. There is quite a supernatural element to the story as well, as Tilly’s suspicions that her room at the boarding house might be haunted by the ghost of Florrie ultimately prove true—a point which might be contentious for conservative readers who do not believe in such ghosts. Other than that, however, and the harsh realities of these flowers girls’ lives which are not glossed over, I found this book to be a surprisingly clean read for the general market, and appropriate for historical women’s fiction fans of all ages.
The pace and flow of this book are much slower than I generally prefer, but every once in a while you need to allow yourself to get lost in a story that takes time. Even for such a gentler, quieter story, however, A Memory of Violets did drag in places. The beginning was particularly difficult for me, as it contained too many flashbacks and information dumps as Tilly just sat on a train heading for London. In fact, I almost gave up on this book . . . until Tilly arrived at Violet House. That’s when she met the “Flower Girls,” and that’s when I was officially hooked.
Be sure to keep the Kleenex handy as you get tugged by the heart into this graceful, haunting tale. While entirely predictable and a bit sluggish at times, this story of London’s “Flower Girls” beautifully weaves through two time periods and dips into the mystical afterlife to show just how far the bonds of sisterhood and love can reach. A Memory of Violets was both tragic and uplifting, and one I can wholeheartedly recommend.
Available February 3, 2015 from William Morrow