This book has all the ingredients of the perfect summer read. An intriguing title (violets in chilly March?). A pretty cover, showing a worn vintage chair, open book, and cluster of purple flowers.
Even the premise is spot-on, perfect for poolside or beach blanket: a young woman going through a divorce takes refuge in the home of her elderly aunt, on Bainbridge Island in Washington State, and finds a mysterious velvet-bound diary dated to 1943 that promises to contain secrets.
But somewhere along the line, what starts off as a confection becomes a chore.
The story of Emily, a 30ish woman who has written a best-selling book and whose life in New York City seems golden -- until she is left by a cheating husband -- forms part of this novel, which is by Sarah Jio, a Seattle resident and health blogger for Glamour magazine.
The other half is told in the pages of the 1943 diary which was written by a Bainbridge Island woman named Esther who disappeared.
The problems are several. The second plotline, Esther's, though briefer in the actual narrative than Emily's, is much more compelling. Emily's own problems seem to pale next to her historical counterpart's, so that each time the story jumps from past to present, it's a jolt.
Secondly, and more unfortunately, the book contains words and sentences that don't work, and plot points that strain credulity. An unfaithful woman goes to confession and is told by a priest that God will only forgive her if her husband does (theologically wrong!). A character appears, functions normally, and then reveals abruptly that she has terminal cancer and has weeks to live -- without looking the least bit ill. Relatives, in order to boost the mystery-tinged storyline, ignore people speaking directly to them and walk rudely out of the room instead.
That's not all. A diary hidden for more than 50 years is written in the showy style of a piece of writing meant for public consumption. Dogs shred key antique newspaper clippings just as they are needed. People who have a chance to clear up major issues in just a few words instead decide to write notes that must be hand-delivered, or hand over boxes of unlabeled mementos, or leave pictures behind in envelopes, or otherwise refuse to do the normal interactive things that humans do with humans, all in the sake of keeping the novel's surprises simmering till the very end.
Moreover, people in the book speak lines like this:
Man making French toast to woman visitor, as his dog destroys the living room: "I wanted this breakfast to be perfect."
Man to woman he has recently met: "Hey, want to come up to my place?"
Young woman to older woman: "I wish you could just tell me what this is all about." Older woman's reply: "I'm sorry, dear, this is your journey."
This book has garnered positive blurbs from a few well-known writers, including Jodi Picoult. Opinions obviously vary. It does have a nice salty seaside setting, which makes for a summery feel.
But from here, it seems that Jio's powers reside in her imaginative plotting abilities and her research processes, which bring us such homey details as the clam chowder served on board the ferry boats that operate in Seattle. Charming!
Surely her next novel will move even further toward those strengths.
Charity Vogel is a News features reporter.
The Violets of March
By Sarah Jio
Plume paperback293 pages, $15