Friday, January 9, 2015

Book Write-Up: Like a Flower in Bloom, by Siri Mitchell

Siri Mitchell.  Like a Flower in Bloom.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2015.  See here for Bethany House’s page about the book.

Charlotte Withersby lives with her father and her cranky housekeeper in nineteenth century England.  Her father is a botanist, and Charlotte collects samples for him, writes and illustrates his books for him, and takes care of his bills and his correspondence.  She loves her work, even though, sadly, she does not get any credit for it.  Her uncle, an admiral who left botany to sail in the Opium Wars, thinks it is time for Charlotte to get married.  Edward Trimble arrives to perform Charlotte’s daily tasks, while Charlotte enters the social scene in search of a husband.  Charlotte resents Mr. Trimble and does not want to get married, so she hatches a plot with her new friend, the social butterfly Miss Templeton, to appear like she’s looking for a husband, in hopes that her father will change his mind and let her come back to her work.  Charlotte manages to get two admirers, notwithstanding her bluntness, her tendency to take things literally, and other social faux pas she commits.  Meanwhile, Mr. Trimble offers her social tips, and we learn in the course of the book where he learned the art of playing the social scene.

Like a Flower in Bloom is narrated in the first person, from Charlotte Withersby’s perspective.  Her manner of narrating is very English, and thus formal and sophisticated.  But she can also be hilarious, at times, especially as she tries to make sense of etiquette and the rules of socializing.  For example, when Mr. Trimble challenges her that her walk is all wrong because she looks like she is in a hurry to get from one place to another, she replies that walking is for that very purpose—-to get from one place to another!  Those who like the TV show Bones will love this book!  Charlotte reminded me a lot of Temperance Brennan!

The dialogue in the book had a sort of Aaron Sorkin feel to it: rapid, witty.  It reminded me somewhat of The Newsroom, especially scenes in the show where people interact with the socially-awkward, and also lovely, Sloan Sabbith.

In a note at the end of the book, the author, Siri Mitchell, comments on botany in the seventeenth-nineteenth centuries, the Opium Wars, and introversion.  Her comments on introversion were especially endearing to me, especially her statement that “Perhaps my novels always speak to questions of worth because so often I doubt my own” (page 361).  Her comments on the history of botany, however, puzzled me a bit, because I had a difficult time making sense of them in terms of the plot of the book.  According to Mitchell, there was a division between people who studied botany to understand God through creation, and people who treated botany as more of a secular discipline.  Mitchell seemed to express a preference for the former theological approach.  The thing is, Charlotte appeared to me to lean more towards the latter approach, focusing on the classification of plants.  Occasionally, Charlotte contemplated the theological significance of botany—-as when she reflected that everything, however strange (strange plants, and herself), has a place in God’s world—-but it seemed to me that she had those kinds of reflections when she was inspired by discussions with others, particularly the rector; left to her own devices, her approach was rather secular.  Later in the book, Charlotte wonders what the meaning of her work is and how it even teaches people about God, and that puzzled me somewhat, since her work prior to that point did not seem to be about theology.  That could be Mitchell’s point: that it should have been.  Even though that passage confused me, it still was important in the story, for it is not surprising that Charlotte’s attitude towards her work would be different when she returns to it after time away.

I should also note that Charlotte becomes more of a feminist, expressing the sorts of sentiments that would appear in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.  I consider it a good thing for an evangelical book to express those sentiments.

Notwithstanding my confusion in areas, I am giving this book five stars.  As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I appreciated reading Charlotte’s journey to navigate her way through social mazes.  And one of the book’s key themes resonated with me: the theme of accepting people as they are, even if they walk to the beat of a different drummer.

The publisher sent me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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