MILKWEED by Mary Gardner


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Reading Gardner's second novel (after Keeping Warm, 1987) is like being stuck on a slow merry-go-round with stationary beige horses and no music: It's diverting for the first turn, then you get the feeling you've already been there...again and again and again. The story of Susan Carson, wife and mother, is painted in broad, impressionistic strokes that capture essentials in a few well-chosen words and trust the reader's imagination to fill in the fine points. This technique works with poetic wistfulness until the narrative becomes an endless litany of dashed dreams and dissatisfaction. Susan was a smart, imaginative kid and voracious reader until marriage to a dullard farmer and motherhood glazed her eyes and made her rethink things. Stubborn and determined not to live with regrets, she puts up her chin and endures through the loss of a child, the struggle to maintain a Minnesota farm, and the distance from friends who understand her. At the heart of her troubles is her inability to tolerate a loveless marriage and submit to a man's will. She takes the kids, leaves her husband, moves to town, and opens a boarding house. Her existence becomes even more mundane (though its telling remains lyrical), and the particulars all start to blend together in a mishmash of ambivalence and mistakes, with the blooming milkweed marking time's plodding passage. Susan rekindles some friendships, educates the kids, gets a part-time job, has a few affairs, and so forth. The focus then shifts to her daughter, enabling readers to relive Susan's life in all its obscurity. By the end, we can sing the refrain by heart: Some men are dolts, others untrustworthy, daughters become mothers become grandmothers, and ""nobody's to blame for life."" A sad ballad in a minor key.

Pub Date: Sept. 6th, 1994
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Papier-Mache -- dist. by Ingram