The Moonflower Vine, Jetta Carleton, Simon and Schuster Inc, 1962, 318 pp
This novel was a reading group pick and I loved it. It is completely American heartland family fiction with feisty daughters, a dad who is imperfect, and a long-suffering but wise mother.
The writing is wonderful and fits the story perfectly. It reminded me of Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows in the way it investigates the flaws of each family member. While it might feel old fashioned to a young woman reading it today, being set in the first half of the 20th century, I think Jetta Carleton paints an accurate picture of life for an American housewife living then in a rural area.
The author herself lived an interesting life running a small publishing house with her husband. She was my mother's age, had a master's degree, and worked in radio and television when that was an exotic career for a woman. The Moonflower Vine was her only published novel.
When I picked up a copy from the library it looked familiar. I realized that we carried the book on our "Books You Always Wanted to Read" shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore when I worked there. In addition, Jane Smiley included it in the list of "A Hundred Novels" that wraps up her unique take on being a novelist: 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Smiley writes brief reviews of each of those hundred novels and her three pages on The Moonflower Vine are typical brilliant Jane Smiley criticism. She says,
"Jetta Carlson wrote only this novel, which appears to be autobiographical, at least in part, but Carleton's style is so dense and precise and her method of imagining the inner lives of each character so daring that she seems to have been unconstrained by fears either of remembering things wrongly or of offending her relatives." (page 306 in the hardcover edition)
Smiley also wrote the foreward to the 2009 Harper Perennial reprint of The Moonflower Vine, and positions the novel at the immediate forefront of the women's movement, a year before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. 1962 was that pivotal year and Smiley points out that Ms Carleton "managed to write her novel in a nonpolitical way; her subject matter has become political in spite of her efforts."
The appeal of The Moonflower Vine to me was exactly as Jane Smiley indicated. In 1962 we did not yet know that women's lives were about to undergo enormous upheaval but somehow we felt the need for it. Four headstrong daughters working out their romantic and professional destinies portrayed amidst the rural magic of Missouri feels like the perfect fictional format to tell the truth about women's lives in 1962 and beyond.
(The Moonflower Vine is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)