Secrets of the Tulip Sisters
Susan Mallery starts the summer off with a flawed and yet funny beach read, Secrets of the Tulip Sisters. The story of two sisters and a best friend muddling their way through small town life, it boasts a lot of Mallery’s favorite storytelling tropes but is ultimately a little short on real romance.
The Tulip Sisters in question are Kelly Murphy – a straight-laced flower farmer who lives on a spread in northern Washington State with her father, Jeff; her wayward little sister Olivia, who was banished from Tulpen Crossing by her father years ago for seeing bad boy baseball player Ryan Burnett; and Kelly’s best friend Helen Sperry, a lonely but gorgeous local café owning divorcée with a tragic past.
While Kelly and Olivia struggle to reclaim some sort of bond, Kelly warily considers the advances of Ryan’s brother Griffith, and Olivia, who has come back to town hoping to rekindle things with Ryan, takes up the task of organizing the local craft mall while putting the moves on Kelly’s ex, Sven, and soon finds herself torn between Sven and Ryan. Helen crushes on older man Jeff, and finds herself bonding with him through the act of playing music. Just as things begin to feel placid, Kelly and Olivia’s mother, Marilee, a freewheeling cheater with no sense of responsibility, blows into town to reclaim Olivia and Jeff alike, wielding years of secrets of her own. Can Kelly, Olivia and Helen figure out their love lives, settle family business and learn to grasp life by the brass ring, or will conflict and a series of long-held secrets forever mire their efforts?
Secrets of the Tulip Sisters is one of those novels that I wish I could say I liked more, but it ended up being a middling experience. The narrative alternates between being a delightful, relatable ride through contemporary mores and a cringe of a throwback to romantic times best forgotten. The problem definitely isn’t Mallery’s prose, which, at its best is zippy and makes reading Tulip Sisters a breeze for the first half – until, that is, long descriptions of architectural developments and clothes-buying begin to bog things down. Still, it’s an awful lot of fun seeing life through the eyes of these women, and you feel like you’re spending time with gossipy friends for much of the book. Female friendship and sisterhood are paramount to the story’s values, and each woman is allowed great moments of vulnerability and tenderness with each other and the friendship between Kelly and Helen is particularly fun for that.
Unfortunately, that sense of vulnerability and tenderness also comes with a price; all of the heroines suffer from severe cases of arrested development. Not one of them has let go of their ancient pasts, which makes them come off more like adolescents hyperventilating after boys and tormenting themselves over missed opportunities and poor teenage choices, instead of grown, experienced businesswomen. Even the language turns childish at times, and it’s especially hard to read that in Helen’s sections, during which this thirtysomething woman repeatedly refers to her vagina as her ‘girl parts’.
Breaking each character and main relationship down, Olivia’s storyline is my second favorite in the novel – I’m a sucker for watching someone build up a career out of nothing and breaking away from bad influences and old habits. But the author indulges in a lot of unconfident ‘tell instead of show’ attributions when it comes to her portions of the book, and Olivia’s emotional tug-of-war between Ryan and Sven lacks that vital spark of unpredictability.
Helen – who’s sweet and relatable – is my favorite character in spite of the whole girl parts thing. Aside from a few unfortunate moments where she comes off like a sex-starved automaton and Jeff’s late-book stubbornness when it comes to Marilee’s crappiness – and the icky fact that Jeff’s known Helen since she was roughly fourteen – her relationship with Jeff comes off like an adult pursuing romance with an old friend instead of a couple of dithery teenagers bashing away at each other. They’re so charming that they make the idea of a duet featuring Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball work.
The biggest problem with the book is Kelly and Griffith’s affair, mostly because of how the romance is set up. After years of running around the world building tiny, efficient houses and thus an architectural empire, one day, Griffith simply decides that he’s a ‘serial monogamist’ (i.e, he wants a girlfriend without the burden of commitment or the hassle of romance) and Kelly should be his next woman, for reasons that are never really explained. The last time he saw her he found her unappealing, but now, he proceeds to basically stalk her for six months. He says he wanted to get to know her without being ‘too obvious’. Maybe he could’ve just… I don’t know, approached her and asked her what she wanted out of life? His come-ons include the phrase – ‘Every man who sees you wants to have sex with you.’ What a charmer.
Kelly is annoyed by this but also thinks he’s really cute, and since no tension can be mined from much of their relationship, she spends most of the novel dealing with the Freudian hang-ups handed down to her from her relationship with her promiscuous mother – which the author handles in a strange and unappealing fashion. If Merilee had been less of an unsympathetic cartoon I might have enjoyed Kelly’s struggle more. But living with her father and still in the room she had as a teenager, with only two relationships under her belt ever, Kelly comes off as an emotionally underdeveloped naïf, which makes her relationship with Griffith extremely uncomfortable because it feels like she’s on uneven footing from the get-go. Further problems – his commitment issues, their difficult families, her lack of orgasmic ability – don’t matter, because it’s like watching a woman date her stalker.
Read Secrets of the Tulip Sisters for Helen and Jeff’s story; the rest of the romances are sadly disposable.