17 May 2011

Review: Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum

Dick Slepy's faith fails him. He cannot control his wife, Seena, and he doesn't understand his youngest daughter, Amaryllis. The oldest and third daughters--Mary Grace and Mary Tessa--are usually up to no good, but at least he has Mary Catherine, the good daughter, the God-fearing daughter.

In the summer of 1976, when life at the cottage in northern Michigan should have revolved around sun and fun and berry picking, Dick's women have broken out of his orbit, and he is desperate to draw them them back in. Fearing that his sins are the cause of his misfortunes, Dick turns to the local priest. When Father Amadi suggests that Dick take his family to the Gold Coast "to find peace through giving," the latter senses this is God's will and Africa can offer atonement. That Africa will make his family more dependent on him is a just a bonus.

In Christina Meldrum's Amaryllis in Blueberry, each member of the Slepy family tells part of the family's journey from upper-middle-class Midwesterners to clueless medical missionaries in West Africa. The characters are distinct enough that their individual perspectives bring something different to the family story, but most events are told through the self-centered focus of one of the teenage girls, leaving readers wanting to know more. The defining moments, however, are given a three-dimensional reality, so those scenes are memorable, blurring the rest of the novel into an incohesive fog.

Meldrum reveals the harder lessons of the Slepys' history through Amaryllis's view point. The eleven-year-old is unique in the family, not only because of her name and coloring but also in her ability to see people for what they are. Amaryllis's chapters are introspective rather than plot-driven, and she is given the keys to love, life, and truth:

Love is ugly and full of hate even as it's tender and kind. There is nothing pure about love. It's the impurity that is love. I know that now. (p. 187)

Life is a gift. . . . When it ends, you don't ask, "Why me?" You ask, "Why not me?" (p. 245)

That's the thing Africa taught me about truth. You know it's truth because it's busy. Any seeming truth that's idle? Well, that's just not truth. (p. 359)
Despite providing snippets for discussion and contemplation, the novel falls short. Some plot lines were dead ends or were distracting, and seemingly important characters were introduced but then dropped. The biggest jolt, however, was the swiftness of the African action, which takes place over the course of a few weeks.

While it is certainly true that missionary work in a Third World country, especially in the 1970s, would have a profound effect on a family like the Slepys, it is difficult to believe that those changes would happen in a matter of days. The girls have barely stepped off the plane before they have fallen in love, accepted the traditions of the local peoples, and made friends. The quick adjustment and immersion into the local culture were difficult to believe.

Amaryllis in Blueberry was my book club's selection for May. Several members pointed out that the novel was very similar to The Poisonwood Bible (which I haven't read) and were turned off on that point alone. There was a slight division by age: The older members appreciated the cultural context and references to the 1970s and understood the parenting style of that era. The younger members were less comfortable with those aspects of the novel.

Give it to me quickly: Controlling father takes his family to Africa, looking for redemption; instead of absolving them of their sins, the Dark Continent only intensifies what has been smoldering within, bringing their true natures to full flame.

Published by Simon & Schuster / Gallery Books, 2011
ISBN-13: 9781439156896
YTD: 48
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: C
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Jenn's Bookshelves 5/17/11, 8:35 AM  

Thank you so much for this review. I, too, have been torn about my feelings for this book. Your review has validated my feelings and opinion of this book.

unfinishedperson.com 5/17/11, 8:47 AM  

I appreciate your honest reviews. It's not easy, but I think it's necessary sometimes -- and not a slight to the author at all, just your opinion on how you feel. Nicely done.

Swapna 5/17/11, 8:59 AM  

Your review is much more put together than mine! I especially loved your summary. This was a hard one to review, but we felt similarly about it.

Barbara 5/17/11, 9:54 AM  

I loved The Poisonwood Bible and was afraid this one would pale in comparison so I haven't read it. Maybe that's best.

bermudaonion 5/17/11, 9:57 AM  

I think I enjoyed this one more than you did. I thought the writing was gorgeous and the book was filled with symbolism. Having said that, I felt like much of it was over my head.

Julie P. 5/17/11, 10:07 AM  

I'm probably more in the Kathy camp on this one. I really liked it and appreciated what the author was trying to accomplish. I think I had a different reaction to the things that bothered you. Guess that's what makes things interesting in the book world! :)

Col (Col Reads) 5/17/11, 10:17 AM  

I just grabbed this from Schlow, and your review has me wondering if I want to go ahead and read it. I'll give it a chapter or two! Thanks for the great review.

Nise' 5/17/11, 10:22 AM  

I had the similar feeling about this book. I hope you get to The Poisonwood Bible, it was good.

Sandy Nawrot 5/17/11, 10:44 AM  

Seriously nice job on this review. I had the worst time with mine. I can't say that I loved this book. I appreciated it for the writing, and while it may not be fair to compare it to The Poisonwood Bible, the author really gave us no other choice but to. Way too many similarities, but in the end, came up way short.

Martha@Hey, I want to read that 5/17/11, 1:24 PM  

I'm so on the fence about this book. Your review was great. I don't know if this is a book for me though I keep meaning to spread my literary wings.

If you get a chance stop by and enter my giveaway: http://heyiwanttoreadthat.com/2011/05/13/double-giveaway/

Meghan 5/17/11, 3:44 PM  

Great review - as you said on Twitter I think we completely agree on this one. It could have been much better than it was.

Debbie 5/17/11, 4:53 PM  

It sounds similar to "the Poisenwood Bible." But that one I liked. Would like to read it again one day.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) 5/17/11, 5:10 PM  

This looks really interesting but I've read so many mixed reviews on it that I'm a little bit nervous...

Meg @ A Bookish Affair 5/17/11, 8:54 PM  

This looks like a good book to me! I think I'll try it!

Zibilee 5/17/11, 9:12 PM  

This is the second less than stellar review of this book I have seen today, and it makes me a bit sad because I just bought the book a few weeks ago. I think it might just end up lingering for awhile on the shelf. Thanks for the honest and thoughtful review.

softdrink 5/17/11, 11:02 PM  

I was excited about Meldrum's new novel, but I somehow missed hearing that it was about a family that goes to Africa on a missionary trip. As soon as you mentioned that, I too was thinking The Poisonwood Bible...which is one of my least favorite books of all time.

So yeah...not so excited now.

Mystica 5/18/11, 3:57 AM  

The second review I am reading today on this book. Thanks for an honest review.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 5/18/11, 7:07 AM  

Sorry this was a bit disappointing. I still need to read this one.

Robin McCormack 5/19/11, 9:04 PM  

Does sound similar to Poisonwood Bible. Though it does sound good. Will add it to my wishlist.

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