In a flower arranging class I took on Zoom recently, the florist explained that from the moment they are cut, fresh flowers begin to die. One way to keep them alive for as long as possible is to change the water every day—something I had never heard before. Under the florist’s tutelage, we all made an arrangement, learning how to open a right rose by rolling the stem, the flower held upside down, between our palms, and using chicken wire to hold our arrangement in place. I loved learning more about flowers—a luxury when it is cold out. It seems fitting, then, that my choice of a novel this week is titled Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin. The story of a sad young woman who keeps a small cemetery in France took hold of my heart late this fall. At the recommendation of two “reader” friends, I bought the book and found myself transported into a story of loss and love and redemption, but also into a mystery which takes a luxuriously long time for the reader to unravel and was not at all what I expected.
Violette Toussaint, young, uneducated and without a family of her own, falls in love with charming ne’er-do-well, Philippe Touissant. Satisfied with too little, she teaches herself to read by studying a French copy of John Irving’s Cider House Rules. Ambitionless, Touissant has no plans for how to make a living; ultimately, they move into a tiny cottage that comes with their job as the level crossing keepers who operate the signals and barriers for trains. The work is lonely. Violette, conscientious, shoulders the responsibilities as Philippe strays. When baby Leonine arrives, Violette cherishes her until her darling daughter dies during what ought to have been a carefree excursion to sleep away camp organized by her disdainful and snooty social-climbing in-laws.
I had never thought much about the caretakers of graveyards, but for Violette, this home of the dead is a refuge. There, sometime after Leonine’s death in a fire, she finds Sasha, a healer, who is the keeper of the cemetery before Violette. His care for her and her delight in helping him care for his garden where he cultivates herbs and flowers and vegetables, allow her to begin to heal and to find, somewhat ironically, reasons to live among the dead. Eventually, Sasha leaves and Violette becomes the cemetery keeper. The community—gravediggers, the priest, the cats and mourners grow important to Violette and are succored by her care just as she was cared for by Sasha. Characters are finely drawn and though the story is complex, weaving several threads together, I did not lose my way. A detective’s arrival, early in the novel, offers a plot strand of its own and offers keys to Violette’s own tragedy that, once resolved, is hugely satisfying.
Violette is not the fragile flower of her name; she has two wardrobes, the somber one appropriate to her role as the cemetery attendant, and vibrant colors worn underneath drab coats—a red dress, a vivid pink slip. Though always grieving for her child, Violette gains confidence in her role, helping others as Sasha helped her. Not one to take herself too seriously, Violette delights in “haunting” the cemetery when teenagers party on the tombs.
Each chapter heading carries one of Violette’s thoughts—a message to her beloved Leonine, a thought about life or death. As I re-read, I was struck by the fact that our minds put stories into chronological order, but one reason the novel is riveting is that it moves back and forth in time. I felt as if I had been transported to France to a small village in Burgandy where I visited a small and exquisitely well-cared for cemetery—and did not want to leave. Perrin’s descriptions of the natural world are detailed and visual, the characters’ musings over life and death are not morbid but affirming. And it is true that cut flowers thrive the longest in fresh water. At its core, this is a novel of resilience, hope and love—a great option for a snowy winter weekend.