The Stone Flower Garden
I would categorize myself as somewhat of a Deborah Smith fan. I loved, absolutely loved A Place to Call Home. Reading it was one of the highlights of last year for me. The problem is, that none of Smith’s other books have really knocked it out of the park for me like that one did. The Stone Flower Garden continues this trend. It was a fairly pleasant read, but nowhere near outstanding.
Darlene “Darl” Union is the granddaughter and heir of Swan Hardigree Samples, owner of The Hardigree Marble Company and most of the North Carolina town of Burnt Stand. The family made its fortune in marble and supplies most of the local building material. Swan has run the company with a rigid hand in order to make it the profitable business that it is, and she has taken much the same approach with Darl herself. Darl, conscious of her elevated social standing and her grandmother’s expectations, grows up lonely and isolated except for her immediate family. Then she meets Eli.
Eli Wade arrives in Burnt Stand one day, pushing his family’s ancient truck. The Wades have fallen on hard times and are grateful for Swan’s assistance. She gives Eli’s father, Jasper, a job and gives the whole family hope. And Darl gives Eli her love and admiration from day one on. They become inseparable friends until a murder and its subsequent chaos separate them for good.
Neither of them expects to ever see the other again, but twenty-five years later, the murder is still unsolved, and the old secrets from the past begin to resurface when one of the wronged begins to ask questions. How will Eli and Darl react to seeing each other again? Will they ever be able to get past everything that stands between them?
If this sounds a little like A Place to Call Home, that’s because it is. The plot is different, but the book is structured almost exactly the same, and there are many parallels, especially in terms of characterization. It was for these reasons that I both liked it and disliked it.
The Stone Flower Garden read very smoothly and the writing was lovely, if occasionally a little too interspersed with metaphor. The first part of the book when Darl and Eli are children is engaging and until the book was about two-thirds complete, I had a hard time putting it down. Smith does a good job developing her characters, especially those of Darl and her grandmother, and she sets up an interesting environment for them to interact in, although at times the first part feels like it’s set much earlier than 1972.
There were numerous scenes that were very touching, most notably a scene in which an adult Darl, a defense attorney, is trying her best to help one of her clients. Darl and Eli are likable characters, both as children and as adults, and were a good match for each other. But in many ways, The Stone Flower Garden felt like a watered-down version of Smith’s previous masterpiece, A Place To Call Home. While I liked Darl and Eli, I did not have the same strong reaction to them as I had to Roanie and Claire. Smith didn’t quite succeed in conveying the intensity of Eli and Darl’s childhood emotions, so it was harder to believe that they were still connected to each other after all the intervening years.
Then too, the book was terribly neat at the end. All the wrongs are righted, the guilty are punished and the victims get their reward. The very last part especially had a symmetry that felt artificial. I also got tired of the stone/marble metaphors, which were here, there, and everywhere.
Overall, The Stone Flower Garden was a rather pleasant book. I didn’t feel like I wasted my time reading it. While I can recommend it, I don’t think that I’ll read it again. I’d rather pick up my battered copy of A Place to Call Home which had all the good qualities of this book, and none of the bad.