The Violets of March by Sarah Jio
PLUME Press/Penguin Group/2011
Reviewer: Sheri de Grom
My heart sang as I read The Violets of March, a debut novel, by Sarah Jio.
I’d recently read Amy Nathan’s blog, Women’s Fiction Writers, wherein she interviewed Therese Walsh, author of The Last Will of Moira Leahy. During the interview of December 14, 2011, Amy asked Theresa to define good women’s fiction, and I’ve never read such a precise description. I paraphrase: women’s fiction makes you reflect on your life in a meaningful way and good women’s fiction leads you to a thoughtful place and connects you with your innermost self.
The Violets of March swept me into its story from page one. I sensed Emily, the main character, would invite me to travel with her and that I would be engaged throughout the journey. She was my kind of woman. Independent.
We meet Joel right away, the soon to be ex-husband who’s filed for divorce and moved in with his intended. Pain is painted across the page along with a quick visual of their two-story, turn-of-the century, New York apartment. Emily and Joel had purchased and renovated the apartment together.
We soon meet Annabelle, the quirky best friend. She’s working on her Ph.D. in social anthropology and has spent the past two years analyzing marriage and divorce data as it relates to a man’s first name. In other words, does a Keith stay married longer than a Joe? How can Annabelle not be a best friend? She’s real and has Emily’s best interest throughout the story—a great best friend. The same by-your-side-always best friend I wrote about in my blog of December 25, 2011.
Emily published a best-selling novel just before she met Joel and now, five years later, she hasn’t been able to come up with a single original idea. Since the release of the bestselling book, Emily tells Annabelle, “My life has been so vanilla.”
Sarah Jio continued to mesmerize me. I might as well have been back at my work investigating insurance fraud for the federal government. Ms. Jio allows Emily’s mind to wander and that’s what any good investigator does and every terrific storyteller must allow—no matter how much we might want to rein our characters in. A criminal wouldn’t be caught and punished or a top-grossing book written if our minds weren’t allowed to wander. How will we discover our characters lives and the story they want to share with us if we don’t give them this freedom?
Emily’s world comes alive when she decides to leave New York and visit her Great Aunt Bee for a month on Bainbridge Island, Washington state. Emily and her sister had spent many fun-filled summers there.
In thinking about going to Bainbridge, Emily realizes she . . . [“felt like a puppy—a scared, lost puppy who just wanted someone to put her collar on and show her where to go, what to do, how to be.”] . . .
The island proves to be a world onto itself for Emily. She meets old friends and becomes reacquainted while meeting new friends and discovering mysteries about her own family. There’s Henry, who she meets while skipping rocks along the shore and Jack, who helps her hide evidence of a broken vase and much more.
Great Aunt Bee warns Emily to be careful of both Henry and Jack, but especially Jack. The only explanation Great Aunt Bee provides is . . . [“People aren’t always who they appear to be.”] . . .
Emily also becomes reacquainted with Greg who now works in the wine department of the Town and Country market. . . . [“It was eerie and exciting and uncomfortable, all at the same time. There, standing in front of me, wearing a grocery store apron, was my teenage crush.”] . . .
Sarah Jio’s description of Greg left me wondering if she was going to lead me down the road not taken for Emily. She wouldn’t do that, would she? Greg doesn’t come clean with his truth right away.
After meeting Greg, Emily is somewhat dazed when she meets Evelyn, Great Aunt Bee’s best friend since childhood. Evelyn presents on page 47 and is a powerful force throughout the remainder of the story. Most important to Emily, she believes Evelyn is the answer to the family secrets she wants to uncover.
Emily’s search into her past and the mystery of why her family is the way it is begins when she discovers a handwritten journal in her nightstand. She doesn’t know who the journal belonged to but if she wasn’t supposed to read it, why hadn’t Aunt Bee removed the journal before assigning her this particular guest room?
Emily promises herself she’ll read a page or maybe two.
Could you stop reading? I couldn’t. A journal entitled, “The Story of What Happened in a Small Island Town in 1943,” beckoned to be read. The first journal entry . . . [“I never intended on kissing Elliot. Married women don’t behave like that, at least not married women like me. It wasn’t proper. . .”] . . .
Who is Elliot? The journal entry is written by Esther and Emily doesn’t know an Esther. Emily makes it her mission to find out.
The Violets of March is interspersed with additional journal entries and Emily wants to knowthe answers to her questions but those who might know Elliot and Esther aren’t talking.
The violets that appear throughout the book carry their own theme. They are as rare as the violets that grew during the time of Shakespeare in what landscape artists today call Shakespearean Woods. The author referred to the violets as being of the species Wood Violets. Ref. pg. 125 The Violets of March . . . [They’re very rare,” Henry said, filling the void that Bee had left when her voice trailed off. “You can’t plant them, for they won’t grow. They have to choose you.”] . . .
The story Sarah Jio tells satisfies from beginning to end. Each character presents with internal conflict central to the story line and is resolved as the family mystery is untangled. The novel includes a reckoning with the past and requires a reckoning with the self. Descriptions set the events and shouldn’t be overlooked for they train our senses and awaken our spirits.
The Violets of March is a splendid debut novel. I recommend it without reservation.
I look forward to hearing from readers and writers alike.