Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Beautiful Debut - Winter Goldfinch

Winter Goldfinch by Jayne Davis Wall is a rare find in a debut novel . . . beautifully descriptive and enchanting. The characters are a mirage of Southern charm and family dysfunction. Mimosa is a mother suffering from loss and estrangement while her remaining children, Adeline and Langley, struggle with their own demons.

Concerned with their mother's decline, Addie and Langley visit her for the first time in years. Addie, in particular, is cautious and struggling with the loss of her husband and young child. So much hurt and pain. "They huddled together, the little family group, their own losses with them."

Addie drives the story and, through her character, Mrs. Wall graces us with tenderness and confusion. She's trying to figure it all out. We understand and want clarity and happiness for her. Langley, although sadly less developed as are the other male characters in the novel, is still defining himself and pushing down old memories.

The book is not defined by sadness and grief, however. Wonderfully poetic moments of humor are interspersed throughout. Addie's dog, Fitz, becomes a lively character in his own right bouncing around with bravado, and the story of the "barefoot bird lady of the Piggly Wiggly" brought chuckles to my heart. Even the chapter title leading into the story, Puppy Love and Pimiento Cheese Sandwiches, says it all.

Nature, from birds to weather and even flowers, swirl around the characters and add to the story in beautifully scripted sentences. And the character of Iona, Mimosa's housekeeper, harkened to the women in The Help. She said little, but managed to say it all.

I loved the care Mrs. Wall took when choosing her chapter titles, hinting at developments to come. But, unfortunately, some of the flashbacks were jumbled and difficult to follow. I was also left yearning for Mimosa's background story, for more depth and sight into the lives she affected. It's ultimately a compliment to Mrs. Wall that I wanted more because I cared so much.

Winter Goldfinch is a captivating read, full of charm and grace. If you love finding new authors and new voices, definitely pick this one up.

And a bonus review by Angela Beach Silverthorne, co-Author of Depression Cookies:

It's rare for a debut novel to capture you on the first page and propel you toward the ending, but Winter Goldfinch manages beautifully. The lyrical quality, weather-driven images and multitudes of birds showcase the artistry of creation against the rebellious and often insensitive qualities of the characters.

When Mimosa (Mimi) Sim's children, Addie and Langley, begrudgingly return home, tension etches the scene. The opening setting is a "cold to the bone" winter, and the atomsphere surrounding their return and the unbearable heat within the Sim's home mimics the raw weather. The collision of personalities opens up buried memories of misunderstandings, love and loss until emotions uncoil begging for reconciliation. The delicate use of flashbacks and flashforwards keep the reader edging toward the truth about the Sim's family like an undulant wave, shaving the shoreline.

Mimi is a free spirit, reminding movie goers of Dame Majorie "Maude" Chardin in Harold and Maude. Her children quickly realize their mother's eccentric qualities have pushed peculiar to a new level. The higher the thermostat is set in her home, the more clothes she removes. Her maid, Iona, agrees with Addie's concern, "Yes'm, she right near stark neckid." The heat also warms up the dry humor, spaced strategically throughout the novel.

Addie and Langley's journey home meets unexpected hurdles outside their mother's behavior. The undercurrents of resentment, dark childhood memories and death are brought to the forefront for reexamination. Throughout the book, it's the maid, Iona, who imparts savoring tidbits of wisdom, "You know, Miss Addie, everybody got some magic in theirselves. Just shows up in different ways. Yo mama, she had plenty of magic in her, too . . . get right down to it, happiness just liking where you at."

Winter Goldfinch is a remarkable journey into the complexity and survival of family. It raises questions the reader cannot ignore, but feel compelled to examine over and over again.