Desert Isle Keeper
Family for Beginners
Family for Beginners is a sweet, heart-wrenching exploration of family and the ties that bind us. As with other books I’ve read by Sarah Morgan, the tone managed to stay light in spite of difficult topics, and after only a few pages, I was fully invested in the characters and absorbed into the book.
Although Family for Beginners is nominally about Flora Donovan’s budding relationship with recently-widowed Jack Parker, its real focus is on Flora’s journey to be accepted by Jack’s two daughters, and his teenage daughter’s Izzy’s struggle to come to terms with her mother’s death. As the book opens, we find that the late Becca Parker has left some sort of unfinished business or secret behind her, known only to her childhood friend Clare. It’s a mystery that builds through the book, keeping the reader wondering if and how this secret may be getting in everyone’s way.
Flora was raised by a single mother who died when she was a child, and thereafter was cared for – begrudgingly – by her aunt. She’s been essentially alone in the world since she was eighteen, and so does all she can to hold onto the few connections she has. Flora works at the same flower shop her mother used to, and she’s a very committed friend, though she feels she is always on the outside looking in at other people’s cheerful lives. When Jack appears in her shop needing a bouquet for his daughter, the two strike up an easy friendship which quickly blooms into love. Flora’s only apprehension lies in the thought of meeting Jack’s daughters.
Although Jack is unconcerned, certain they’ll all get along, Flora is right to be worried. In the months since her mother’s death, Izzy has coped by making herself indispensable. She effectively runs the household, cleaning, cooking dinners, and reminding her father how to pack her sister Molly’s lunch. The presence of a new woman threatens to upset the delicate balance, so Izzy makes plans to show Flora she’s not needed or wanted. She cooks gourmet meals, chastises Flora about wearing shoes in their pristine house, and makes sure an extra few photos of her mother appear on the mantel whenever Flora visits.
My heart ached for both of these women, and what kept me glued to this story was the slow build to resolution as a family. While initially vulnerable and uncertain about her role in a family dynamic, Flora slowly starts to stand up for herself, even when Izzy challenges her. And when they go on their annual vacation with Clare’s family, Izzy starts to relax and remember what it is to be normal a sixteen-year-old, hanging out by a lake with your summer crush. It’s not a straightforward or easy journey, but I loved seeing the messiness of emotional growth happen in these pages.
While I have only good things to say about Flora and Izzy – they’re multidimensional, with real struggles I could relate to – Jack is a little harder to describe. He’s essential to the story, since Flora wouldn’t be meeting Izzy without him. And he’s a nice, likeable guy. But as a character he felt like a blank canvas to me, a necessary part of the picture which is ultimately used to present the vibrant colors of other characters. He’s oblivious to Izzy’s emotional turmoil, thinking it’s good that she’s being more responsible when she used to give her mother attitude. And because he’s missed that, he has no concept of why Flora would find it challenging to join his family. So to sum Jack up: Nice, but clueless.
Even with that, though, this book is still a DIK for me. The development of Flora and Izzy, separately and together, was beautiful. I also loved the dash of a family secret/mystery, which was exactly the amount of subtle drama that the story called for. And for all his faults, Jack makes the story work, even if he’s not too compelling on his own. So go forth and read! With Family for Beginners, Sarah Morgan has reminded me why she’s one of my favorite authors.