In Mapson's (Hank & Chloe, 1993, etc.) mature sixth novel, four women with variously awful pasts come together to run a California flower farm.
Born with a bad spine and afflicted with a heart condition, Phoebe DeThomas, at 38, spends most of her time in a wheelchair, failing to understand why beloved Aunt Sadie left her the farm while bequeathing all the money to brother James, an affluent businessman. How can Phoebe afford to run the place, let alone cultivate the poinsettias whose holiday sales could bail her out? She gets the answer with the impromptu incursion of Ness Butler, a 35-year-old black farrier (she shoes horses) infected with HIV. Phoebe takes Ness in, then advertises for other female housemates willing to trade farm labor for low rent. The lineup is completed by 39-year-old Nance Mattox, who finally realized that her counterculture journalist boyfriend was never going to marry her, and 45-year-old Beryl Reilly, just out of prison after accidentally killing her abusive husband. Over the course of a year, the women bond powerfully even as each becomes involved with a man: Phoebe loses her virginity to UPS driver Juan; Ness shares her fears about illness with HIV-positive David, who becomes a cherished friend; Nance and James tentatively move toward commitment; and Beryl eventually heads to Alaska with used-bookstore owner Earl. But these relationships aren't the point of Mapson's deceptively rambling narrative, a meditation on themes of particular interest to the middle-aged: loss, loneliness, the ongoing difficulty of the mother-daughter bond. (The story behind the name of Bad Girl Creek, which runs through Phoebe's farm, refers obliquely to this last topic.) There are more than enough loose ends to justify the subtitle, but they don't seem arbitrary—more like the author's rueful acknowledgment that life has no neat conclusions.
An absorbing story and quirky, appealing characters (a given with Mapson), deepened by honest grappling with a whole slew of messy emotions and issues.