The fate of a struggling Southern California citrus farm shifts after the arrival of a mysterious Haitian woman.
The second novel by Soli (The Lotus Eaters, 2010) centers on Claire, the matriarch of an orchard that’s been the source of plenty of financial and emotional heartbreak. Her young son was killed there, and the aftermath of his death drove a wedge between her and her husband and two daughters. Years later, when Claire is diagnosed with breast cancer, she begins to search for live-in help and is introduced to Minna, a young woman low on housekeeping experience but high on charm: She speaks enchantingly of her academic work and her great-grandmother, the novelist Jean Rhys. Minna soon brings touches of her homeland to Claire’s house, building a shrine in her room and making herbal concoctions to bolster Claire’s recovery, and the new assistant also pursues a relationship with a movie-star neighbor. But all is not well: Minna grows increasingly possessive and demanding of Claire, and a later section of the novel shows that Minna’s background isn’t quite what she’s claimed it was. This book aspires to be a multilayered story about class and race distinctions—Soli explores Claire’s white guilt and cultural confusion to better get at the source of emotional divisions. Though Soli cannily shows how each woman exploits the other, her noble goal is undercut somewhat by baggy, sometimes pedantic storytelling, particularly the wooden arguments between Claire, her daughters and her ex-husband. (Soli’s affinity for sentence fragments amplifies the prose’s stiff feel.) Minna’s own section of the novel, which chronicles her travels from Haiti to Miami to California, features some of Soli's most engaging writing, though it owes a clear debt to the troubled Haitian heroines of the works of Edwidge Danticat.
Ambitious but overripe.