By Heidi Simmons
The Garden of Small Beginnings
by Abbi Waxman
Grief is a powerful and overwhelming emotion. It is not something easily shared or overcome. It is deeply personal. In Abbi Waxman’s debut novel The Garden of Small Beginnings (Berkley, 368 pages) a mother must come to terms with her loss and the growing changes that surround her.
Closing in on four years since the tragic death of her husband, Lilian is still having a difficult time moving forward with her life. With two young girls, seven and five, she is barely hanging on.
Working as a textbook illustrator, Lilian’s boss asks her to take a local gardening class so she can better understand how to draw fruits and vegetables. It doesn’t hurt that the book’s author runs the class. It is an important project for the struggling publishing house.
Reluctantly, Lilian agrees to get her hands dirty because her children are welcome to attend the gardening class and she knows it would be good for them.
Lilian has a beautiful and charming sister, Rachel, who has helped Lilian raise her children while dealing with the grief. Lilian was hospitalized for months after her husband’s death, so Rachel stepped in to care of the kids and they adore their aunt.
Rachel decides to participate in the gardening class as well, and the family finds the process of growing plants, fruits and veggies a refreshing and welcomed new hobby.
Within the class, Lilian and her family also discover an unlikely new group of friends who all become close as they learn how to tend the soil and plant seeds.
Over the gardening course, as Lilian learns to cultivate the earth and grow plants, she also learns about her grief. Lilian is attracted to the instructor and he’s attracted to her. This forces Lilian to come to terms with being a young widow.
Questions of how to move forward plague her. How do you know when you are ready for a new relationship? Her eldest daughter insists she is still married. Lilian’s in-laws encourage her to find a new father for her children and her sister wants her to get laid.
Lilian discovers just how selfish she has been with her personal grief. For the first time since her husband’s death, she realizes that her whole family is also grieving and that together, with love and support, they will move forward.
Author Waxman writes in the first person voice allowing Lilian to narrate her own story. The character often masks her grief with a strong sense of humor deflecting anything that makes her uncomfortable. She is self-deprecating and critical and selfish, but never the less does her best to maintain her family and household.
At times, I didn’t like Lilian. That is until I saw through her façade and struggle to maintain some kind of life without her husband. It’s like meeting a friend for lunch and when you ask how they are, they say fine yet you know that is not really so.
Lilian tries to appear fine – although there are clues otherwise like a messy household and frumpy clothing – clearly, her loss remains overwhelming.
The author includes illustrated gardening notes between chapters, which offer some thematic resonance. I like gardening and found that the simple tips for growing veggies were actually helpful.
The Garden of Small Beginnings has bits of wisdom throughout. And I was glad that the story didn’t turn too much toward a romantic relationship to save the protagonist.
Waxman allows her characters just enough wisdom and insight to overcome their flaws while still being real. I’m not sure there are many people who are constantly as funny as Lilian and Rachel, but I did enjoy their banter, especially as a way to cope with loss.