By Mary Vensel White
Winter Goose Publishing
Feb. 2019, 132 pages, $15.99
Mary Vensel White’s second book, Bellflower, offers an unusual reading experience. In a variation on the “novel-in-stories” form, it weaves three narratives together, but lets the reader choose the order in which to experience them. The narratives are presented in an A-B-C pattern, but they can be read in any order. For instance, you can read just the A narrative (about the Hanley family) from front to back, or randomly.
That’s because Bellflower is what White calls a novel-in-moments, a mosaic of key experiences in the characters’ lives. Changing the order alters the reader’s perception as different events take on emphasis and as the context for action changes. Sometimes we see cause-and-effect; other times we see the effect and only discover the cause later, after we’ve made several inferences. In that sense, it’s like real life.
The three stories, all set in the Southern California suburb of Bellflower, concern Glen Hanley’s marriage, family life, and divorce; Terri Moore’s attempt to rebuild her life after her divorce, when a surprise changes everything; and elderly Mrs. Hallowicz’s quiet life, which is upended when an event from her distant past returns to haunt her.
White’s strength as a writer is her ability to convey the sense of a character’s life through small moments: their daily activities, personal rituals, conversations. Although the three plots are built around life-changing events or decisions, White avoids melodrama through the use of a calm, matter-of-fact tone and the accrual of telling details that make the characters feel like people in your own life.
(My review of White’s debut novel, The Qualities of Wood.)