Faith Sullivan has written two previous novels set in the fictional small town of Harvester, Minnesota. Her first, THE CAPE ANN, was published in 1988 and focused on six-year-old Lark Erhardt, who narrated the story of her mother's desire for a better life and her father's repeated shattering of those dreams. Readers who fell in love with Lark's combination of innocence and observation, as well as with Sullivan's old-fashioned storytelling abilities, have had to wait a long time to find out more about Lark's story. Now, with GARDENIAS, the wait is finally over.
The novel begins in 1942, as nine-year-old Lark and her newly separated mother and aunt Betty travel by train from southern Minnesota to San Diego. Eager to obtain war work and as much distance as possible from her estranged husband, Lark's mother finds a good office job and a small house. While her mother concentrates on making a comfortable and beautiful home, and her aunt focuses on her rapidly advancing career in fashion, Lark comes to know the motley group of residents, many of them Midwestern transplants, inhabiting their housing project.
Among these neighbors is Shirley, a girl who's Lark's age. Although the bossy, overbearing girl often clashes with Lark, the adults in Lark's life warm quickly to Shirley. Neglected at best and abused at worst, Shirley also shows promising musical talent when she takes piano lessons from Lark's mother and another neighbor. Uncomfortably wise beyond her years, Shirley clues the more innocent Lark into the ways of the world.
During her few years in San Diego, Lark loses much of her innocence, in the wake of the war, her mother's secret love for another man, and her father's increasingly menacing letters. Her narrative voice, which combines a childlike impressionability with keen observation, is still winning, and readers can observe Lark growing into the writer she is obviously meant to become.
Although Sullivan's portrayal of wartime San Diego lacks some of the intimacy of her portrayals of her native southern Minnesota, her affection for the Erhardt family remains and will once again draw readers new and old into the lives of this small, determined and loving family.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011