Dreams of Falling
Karen White’s complicated saga Dreams of Falling pulls apart the many-hived secrets of the Lanier/Darlington family.
Artist Ivy Lanier, haunted by a tragic and complex past, sprints away from her broken heart by plunging herself into frantic activity after frantic activity and new thing after new thing. Nostalgia spurred on by refinishing her father’s desk sends her to the rotting grounds of Carrowmore, the ancestral plantation where she was born and raised – and where she lost her biological mother as a child. Determined to leave something behind in the family’s wishing tree, her hubris has resulted in her falling through the main house’s floorboards, putting her into a coma.
Larkin Lanier, Ivy’s more grounded daughter, escaped South Carolina for a fresh start in New York nine years earlier. There, she pursues a career in advertising while nursing her aspirations to become a novelist. Her once-pampered life as a beloved child whose Darlington roots had marked her as unique in her hometown mean nothing here, and she is endlessly haunted by nightmares in which she falls into blackness.
Larkin’s somewhat unfulfilling and lonely life is brought to a standstill by a phone call from Ceecee, who raised Ivy after the tragic death of Ceecee’s best friend Margaret and co-parented Larkin due to Ivy’s inattentiveness. Larkin is reluctant to come home but does so even though the growing distance between herself and her parents has put a chill on their already semi-dysfunctional relationship.
Ceecee has found herself the keeper of many of the family’s secrets. Once a shy preacher’s daughter forbidden from smoking, dancing or wearing make-up, she’s become an elegant society wife with a house filled with lovely things. While she anxiously waits for news about Ivy she begins deconstructing the past – a past that also included their friend Martha.
Martha – called Bitty by everyone – was once the third musketeer in Margaret and Ceecee’s longstanding friendship. She, too, has estranged herself from the group in order to follow her dream of painting; Ivy’s disappearance suddenly draws her back into the fold, chain smoking, hacking and slugging coffee the whole way. Bitty and Ceecee think they know where Ivy is and a clueless Larkin is committed to follow along.
Seventy years before, Margaret, Bitty and Ceecee had dreams; the independent Bitty to be an artist of renown, the romantic and jealous preacher’s daughter Ceecee to marry ‘the perfect man’ and Margaret – popular and effervescent, to whom good things come easily – keeps her wish a secret. They leave these hopes on ribbons stuffed inside of the tree trunk of the ‘wishing tree’ at Margaret’s home (a longtime family tradition), and as they travel through a momentous spring break in Myrtle Beach, those dreams start coming true, one by one. But secrets and bitterness also bloom, which will echo down through the generations as time goes on.
It turns out that their instincts are one hundred percent right, and Larkin finds Ivy, clutching a ribbon bearing an apology to a man named Ellis. Once Ivy is rescued, she lingers in a coma and we’re treated to her omniscient PoV as her ‘spirit’ floats above her body, caught between this life and the next and lamenting her past. Meanwhile, Larkin waits for her to wake up, deals with the tangled family history, her complex feelings about Ivy, Bitty and Ceecee, her nightmares and her own blighted past featuring her ex-best friend Mabry, Mabry’s twin brother, and Jackson, on whom Larkin’s always had a massive crush. As secrets unravel and the truth comes to light, we learn that Larkin has her own layers and complexity – and that she shares a secret that permanently scarred Mabry and sent Larkin out of the city. Will Ivy waken? And will this fractured family ever find harmony again?
The words ‘generational saga’ aren’t thrown around often these days, but Dreams of Falling definitely fits that category. I often thought of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood as I read it; some elements of this story echo it strongly.
Dreams of Falling spans seventy years and bounces between the points of view of Ivy, Ceecee and Larkin; Ivy and Larkin’s are in first person, and Ceecee’s in second. That’s a lot going on at the same time; the book is a rich, rich dish, and it might be hard for some readers to follow the jumpy flow of the narrative.
Of the three point of view characters Ivy’s years are woefully underrepresented – aside from her yearning for her love, we’re not given any scenes of her childhood or teen years from her point of view, and big chunks of her history are delivered by the other characters while she lingers on, floating above her body whenever necessary. That made it hard to bond with her.
Larkin is an annoying protagonist, self-pitying and self-consciously quirky, she’s supposed to be an artistic-type but never shows the creative flair an advertising copywriter would need to possess. She is torn between the man who is Good For Her and the player who Hurt Her Before And Will Hurt Her Again If She Picks Him, and the novel makes her choice painfully unsubtle. Her only other characteristic is that she used to be overweight, which is lingered on frequently, as if her new thinness is some kind of marker that underlines her worthiness of a new life.
As for Ceecee? I loved her. I understood her complexities, her jealousies, and her need to make others happy at any expense. Of the three women, Bitsy felt the most underdeveloped and yet the most intriguing; the only one among them who projected actual sustained bitterness, an artist who isn’t allowed much canvas space. As for Margaret, she’s so immature and reckless as to not inspire pity, even for a girl fresh out of high school.
There isn’t a single male character with any sense of dimension to them, and they exist on the fringes of the story as objects of desire, regret or scorn for the main female characters; much like with the Ya-Yas, men in the Darlington’s orbits exist to abuse, impregnate, worship or die. The most fully-drawn among them is Bennett, who seems to be much more in love with the house than with Larkin.
Several other plot elements add to the book’s imperfection. The wishing tree adds a shot of magical realism to the book that makes no sense when compared to the grounded realism of the plot. Secrets are revealed and hashed out but not lingered over before the characters rush off to the next breathless revelation. The book’s long length ought to give us room for these things to settle in, and the number of lies and secrets lingering between all of them mount up and mount up until it feels almost ludicrous.
Dreams of Falling is classic women’s fiction, with all of the pitfalls and benefits that that sentence entails.