Ella in Bloom
by Shelby Hearon
Published by Knopf
259 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Sienna Powers
The title's Ella is the second daughter of a middle-class Texas family. Ella is not as pretty, as tall, as accomplished or as svelte as her elder sister, Terrell. To deal with the vast valley of her own imperfections, Ella left home at the earliest opportunity: running away to marry one of Terrell's rejected suitors, the highly unsuitable Buddy. Once settled in Louisiana, the unstable Buddy spends more time away from home -- and Ella -- than present. He impregnates her on an infrequent visit home, finally dumps her and then "since he never bothered to dissolve our legal entanglement," when he gets himself killed, Ella comes into a small amount of money. Enough, she tells us, to "buy this elderly duplex and get my Chevy overhauled."
All of this is back story: they are the circumstances under which we meet Ella and her 14-year-old daughter Birdie, living in cheerful single-parent-family poverty in Old Metairie, Louisiana. Ella makes her living by taking care of wealthy people's plants and pets "when they fled the stifling summer heat, taking off for the mountains, to Europe, to the rocky coast of Maine: house sitter, pet sitter, plant sitter, security service." For her part, Birdie looked after younger children when the opportunity arose. "Baby-sitting, cat-sitting, plant-sitting: we were a cottage industry."
Ella tells her parents none of this but, instead, creates a more genteel environment for their "widowed daughter from Louisiana," in the letters she writes to her mother.
Dear Mother, Dear Mother. The sweating wasn't only from the heat. Part of it was from the effort of dissembling, at the age of forty-three, as if I were a child of ten lying about her friends, her grades, what her teacher said.
Ella fills her letters with carefully wrought details. Inventing rose gardens, gracious luncheons: a prettier life. "Often, I would make mention of some favorite linen skirt or dress. Linen, as evocative a word as roses."
The death of the much adored Terrell back in Texas provides both pain and change for Ella. Now she is the only daughter -- and why this daughter? -- and her demanding mother's expectations of her begin to change.
More change is afoot. Ella knew that Terrell was flying to meet a lover when her plane crashed. No one else knew: not their parents and not Terrell's husband, a man Ella herself was somewhat in love with when she was a teenager growing stunted in her perfect -- and older -- sister's shadow. Ella's challenges are almost too many for a single, slender book. At midlife, she must grow beyond the need to prove herself to her parents. She must sort out her own tangled feelings about love and relationships. She must let the ghost of her sister go gently on its way. And she must come to terms with the thing inside her that's made her invent a life for her parents rather than sharing the one she owns.
The much celebrated Hearon has won an American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award; been the recipient of an Ingram Merrill grant and has won fellowships for fiction from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Clearly, Hearon is a creator of literary, not genre, fiction. And yet, some of the romantic elements in Ella in Bloom bog the narrative down so steeply that sometimes you wonder if this is not, in fact, a Romance novel (and note the capital "R"). The growth that Ella seems to need does not arrive as strongly as one would hope. She never really comes properly to terms with her mother's somewhat abusive love nor does she ever really deal with the hulking shadow of her dead sister. In short, she never really develops the strength that the character seems capable of.
There is some beautiful detail in Ella in Bloom, Hearon's 15th novel. The author's scattershot approach to narrative is entirely her own -- no one writes quite like Shelby Hearon -- and she uses the lightest of strokes to build strong, identifiable characters and situations.
It was a myth that people created their own children, the ball-of-clay business. The truth was, children made themselves in reaction to you. They detected the moth hole in your personality, the weak seam in your resolve, and they moved right in to make out of the whole cloth of their observation a better self than the one you had ready for them. I often found myself thinking, Can this be my child? This short, plump, bossy person with crinkled masses of light hair down to her waist, in an Amish-style dress dangling the length of her unshaved legs. A serious musician at fourteen.
Hearon seldom tells her readers something: she evokes rather than explains and the resulting voice is both fresh and refreshing. The story here is not, however, as strong as the writer who tells it. While the reader can't help but care about Ella, the conclusion is vaguely unsatisfactory and the paths she ultimately chooses seem less than clear. Still, if you don't object to large doses of romance with your literature, Ella in Bloom is a beautifully rendered portrait of a fairly odd heroine. | January 2001
Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.