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Merle

Merle

Flora - Gail Godwin I was so intrigued by the characterization in the first few pages that I just had to read this book. It’s short and I read it very quickly, but in the end it was something of a disappointment.

Like many first-person narratives, this story is told by an old woman, Helen, looking back on her childhood: specifically, the summer of 1945, when she was ten and left for the summer in the care of her 22-year-old cousin, Flora. Readers are alerted from the first page that the summer will end in tragedy, and in the meanwhile we read about the often troubled relationship between the two main characters, as well as their interactions with others in the community.

While the characterization is the best thing about this book, the plot is the crux of my problem with it. At various points in the story the older Helen interjects discussions of her remorse, such that the ultimate tragedy is quite predictable; but it’s easy to see why Godwin made this choice, because without the promise of something dramatic eventually happening, readers might give up on the mundane account of Helen’s life that precedes it. Personally, I don’t require dramatic events to keep my interest in a story, but I do like more tension and momentum than this book provides: something needs to be at stake, be it a relationship, someone’s position in the community, or a character’s choice of direction in life. Unfortunately, here there just isn’t much; Helen and Flora go about their daily routines, and the bulk of the book leads up to the tragedy only indirectly. Since what happens is an accident, there's only so much building up to it that can be done. Then it ends. This is frustrating because there are two potentially great stories lurking just beneath the surface: one about how Helen’s remorse affects her and her attempts to atone, and the other about Helen and Flora’s family, with its colorful characters and many secrets. We hear almost nothing about Helen's life after that summer. We do learn something about several of the relatives and their secrets, but I wanted more.

Because there are some excellent characters here: the eponymous Flora is one; Helen’s grandmother, father and mother are all fascinating and deserve more page time than they get; Flora’s relatives are intriguing as well, and I was disappointed not to meet them. Helen is a serviceable narrator with a decent amount of complexity, but this was not one of those books that renders a child protagonist so believably as to take me back to how it felt to be her age. Outside of the family, the secondary characters are a mixed bag: Finn, the war veteran who captures both Helen’s and Flora’s affections, was not as interesting to me as he was to them; Mrs. Jones, on the other hand, was vivid and believable. The characters' relationships are believable, and their interactions often fun to read.

Other than that, the writing and dialogue are solid, although the characters have a tendency to sound writerly when they talk for more than a few sentences at a time. I liked the use of the grandmother’s letters to show another side of her character, but for someone meant to be so discreet and reserved, her circumlocutions are awfully transparent; it tends to be immediately obvious to the reader what she’s talking about even when she’s evidently trying to obscure it.

Overall, an okay book, but one that had the potential to be better with some smarter editing. If you’re a big fan of character studies and less concerned about plot, this book may be right for you; on the other hand, I tend to be more interested in character than plot myself, and still found it lacking in momentum. It’s short and decently written, just not as good as I expected.