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Review: Amaryllis in Blueberry, Christina Meldrum

amaryllis in blueberryThe Slepy family story begins with Christina ‘Seena’ Slepy on trial for her husband’s murder in Africa. The portion of the story leading up to the day is slowly revealed through flashbacks interposed with Seena’s thoughts on just how she and her family got to this point. Dick’s obsession with Catholicism, Seena’s affair, Amaryllis – so dark and different from her sisters – questions her parentage, and Mary Grace, Mary Tessa, and Mary Catherine all grapple with their own problems related to growing up and becoming women. Arrival in Africa merely exacerbates the tensions between the family members, each a world unto themselves, until the novel’s explosive conclusion.

I struggled with Amaryllis in Blueberry for a number of reasons, primary among them the fact that it reads like a shallower imitation of The Poisonwood Bible. I loved that book when I read it in high school and I have even managed to read it again since, a rarity for books I read in those days. It has stuck with me over the years in a big way, enough that the parallels between these books, with the divided family of daughters, one vain, one religious, the super-religious father, all heading to Africa on said father’s initiative, struck me at once. In that book, I was swept away by how the characters grew and developed, how Africa changed them in ways both good and bad.

Christina Meldrum appears to be trying for the same effect here, and while I enjoyed the book as I was reading it, just a day away from it has made me question it. It certainly did not have a similar effect on me, and I’m sure that’s in part because I didn’t care for the characters. They all seemed very self-absorbed, not unrealistic, but people I couldn’t relate to. Even Amaryllis, the title character, is a vague and shadowy girl.

One thing I did very much appreciate, though, was the characters’ efforts to break free of boxes, particularly Grace. She knows that because she is beautiful and blonde that she doesn’t have to be smart and that people in fact expect her to be dumb and make mistakes. So, even though she was clever as a child, she begins to rely on her beauty and becomes the stereotype that others expect. Some of the events in Africa help her to realize that she doesn’t have to be that way, that she shouldn’t put others in the boxes she hates herself, and that she can be both smart and beautiful.

I also think part of the problem is that the book is too short for what it’s trying to do. The narrative skips around between a huge number of characters, a real problem when their chapters are only a couple of pages long, and it’s difficult to get to know any of them particularly well. Some of the storylines seemed unnecessary, like Clara’s, and at times I felt irritated that the book led me to think in one direction just to provide an ‘a-ha!’ moment at the end. It felt cheap to me because the book wasn’t powerful enough to deliver an ‘a-ha!’ moment on its own. The writing was lovely, but in the end I just didn’t connect with it.

A few other reviews to give you a different perspective …

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