Leota Reinhardt is in her eighties. She has a son George, and a daughter Eleanor, neither of whom keep in touch with her very often, and so she lives alone struggling to keep up her house and do simple tasks like getting to the grocery store without a car.
Enter Corban Solsek. A spoiled young college student from an affluent background (with a spiffy new car), and determined to succeed, Corey (or Corban) has a task to fulfill; a sociology assignment given to him by his professor. In order to get the high grade he covets, Corey reluctantly decides to make a case study and Leota is the lucky woman whose name is given to him by a local charity.
Or maybe not so lucky? Corey’s standoffish ways, his self-serving attitude and obvious lack of regard for the elderly show up all to blatantly when he arrives on Leota’s doorstep. Leota, no naïve, inhibited figure herself, and Corban sadly do not hit it off, especially when he takes it upon himself to clean her front window and is caught peering in when she doesn’t answer the door as quickly as Corban thinks she should. Sparks fly and words are not minced.
“She sounds like a rude old biddy.’
“Yeah, she is,” he said, head back against the sofa. “Disagreeable. Snarls every other word at me. Orders me around like a personal servant. She hasn’t an ounce of respect for my person.”
“Does she know you’re studying at the university?”
“She knows. That’s just another strike against me.”
He leaned forward, raking his fingers through his hair in frustration. “Why do you think? She knows she’s part of my project.”
As this novel progresses, the reader learns all about Leota and why she acts the way she does. We are introduced to her granddaughter Annie, fleeing her home in order to escape her vain, suffocating mother (Eleanor, Leota’s daughter) and her overly ambitious plans for Annie. Annie decides that the years have passed too quickly without her ever really getting to know her grandmother and so she too shows up on Leota’s doorstep. But Annie’s arrival sparks a change. Annie is talented and determined to make it in the art world, and Leota’s overgrown, neglected garden begins to flourish again (possibly an illustration of what needs to happen within the characters in this absorbing novel).
We find the reasons why Eleanor is driving everyone closest to her away and gasp at her incredible audacity and creativity as she manipulates emotions to get her own way. The author seems to know just when and how to reveal each character’s story; her timing is perfect; answers are unfolded at just the right time. Why *does* Nora hold so much anger and bitterness toward Leota? Could there be justification for her hurts or is there another hidden side that the reader hasn’t had answered yet? Meanwhile, we laugh and cry in turn as we read through Nora’s actions that are so revealing of her inward thoughts:
“The quaking started inside her. Would her family be happier if she went off by herself and left them alone to celebrate Thanksgiving any way they wanted and with whomever they wanted?
Thanksgiving at her mother’s! Thanksgiving in a cramped, prewar cottage surrounded by run-down houses in the middle of a ghetto. How delightful!”
We are saddened by the story that is slowly uncovered as the reader is given the backstory but the characters remain ignorant and frustrated by the repercussions in the chain reactions they themselves have caused.
“Carefully stacking the letters in order, she bundled them again.
For now, she supposed Eleanor would continue to cling to her own view of the past. She would hold on to the tattered crazy quilt of experiences stitched together by her own fertile imagination. Bits and pieces of conversations, things she had been told or over-heard – fragments of truth, but never the whole of it.
Stand back, Eleanor. Stand back, and take a good look.”
What a clever author! The reader will be challenged in their thinking as they come across contemporary dilemmas and difficult situations concerning euthanasia, abortion, and the tug-of-war between driven success and the strain it brings to families. The reader is also taught that everyone has a story; sometimes the outward actions are not as easy to read as we might think. There are hard lessons to be learned here, and one of them is that we may not be able to ever sufficiently fix the past or mend the hurts we cause.
This novel is not a comfortable, happy-go-lucky read (I am not saying there is not a place for light reads in literature; just don’t look for it here). It targets human flaws and mistakes, wrong choices, and exposes the consequences of our own selfishness. It challenges the characters, and in doing so, the reader is also challenged to look beneath the surface and be willing to consider the whole picture.
The author does not try to hide behind a sugary-sweet characters but rather shows life in all of its realities and the results of our own sinful decisions. There are no ‘pat answers’, no predictable outcomes, no neatly-tied-up romances in this book. This is a book I wish everyone would read, regardless of their viewpoint or worldview.
I read this book in one weekend. Although a re-read for me, the story is just as fresh and engaging as the first time I read “Leota’s Garden”, and I had a hard time putting this down!
The tragedy and complexity of our own human nature is revealed in all of its dark repercussions, but there is also hope that springs up in unexpected ways and surprising unlooked-for answers. If nothing else (and there is a LOT of the ‘else’!) “Leota’s Garden” illustrates the veiled mystery within life itself mixed with the sovereignty of a God who does not abandon His loved ones to suffer in hopelessness alone.