Friday, September 11, 2015

THE SPARROW SISTERS by Ellen Herrick (A Review)

A Novel
Ellen Herrick
William Morrow Paperbacks; September 1, 2015
Paperback, 384 pages
Contemporary Fiction, Magical Realism
My Review
5 out of 5 stars
The Sparrow Sisters was a deeply satisfying read and I think I will be under its spell for a while, at least until the author (a publishing world veteran with a conspicuous talent for storytelling) decides to spin this stand-alone novel into a series and dishes out another enchanting tale from quaint Granite Point.
If you are a sucker for romance, if you are fascinated by legends and folklore, if you pine for a little bit of drama with a touch of New England regional feel, you will find yourself right at home in the fictional world created by Ellen Herrick. Granite Point is "a town of fishermen and spinsters, shop-keepers and faith-healers", with a long history and a wide Puritan streak. Only few pages into the book and we already have a remarkably full sense of place. Herrick sets a great scene with a series of well chosen details that aptly paint a supremely evocative landscape as well as an atmospheric mood for the story and the characters populating it: "The whole town feels be-spelled...sometimes it feels like it's one of those enchanted villages the hardware store puts up in the windows at Christmas."
Sorrel, Nettie, and Patience Sparrow, known to everyone as 'The Sisters', are something of a legend in Granite Point. All named after plants and flowers, they live in isolation in their ancestral home on top of the hill overlooking the harbor. Ivy House is filled with the flowers and herbs, vegetables and fruits of their Shakespeare garden (the 'Nursery'), an extra-ordinary place where roses still bloom on New Year's Day, clematis and honeysuckle climb the small eighteenth century barn in November, and morning glories unfold all day. An odd place indeed, planted, according to the legend, by the first Sparrows who settled in the harbor during the seventeenth century. The eccentric sisters are considered a strange but useful part of Granite Point: they live their quiet and uncomplicated existence, firmly settled in their ways, all unmarried although beautiful, planting and reaping, selling the products of their nursery, and preparing herbal remedies to heal all kinds of common ailments. Patience, the youngest and most strikingly beautiful, is the one with the 'touch', an uncanny ability passed onto her, generation after generation, by her great-great-great-great grandmother Eliza, a remarkable woman who dared to use her healing powers at a time when people weren't so happy about someone with such a gift. They called it 'witchcraft' and it usually ended up with a trial, stakes and fire. That notorious part of the Sparrow legacy and history had been buried in the collective memory of Granite Point for centuries and the 'Sisters' might well have gone on  with their plants and natural cures if it wasn't for the fact that the old town doctor decided to retire and, in doing so, he set in motion a chain of events - some of them blissful, some others...not so much.
The blissful part is young, tall, and broad-shouldered, good-looking and kind mannered. He goes by the name of Henry Carlyle, and he is the new town doctor. With a past in the army and a deployment in Iraq, Dr. Carlyle believes he'll find solitude and peace by the ocean, in a picturesque little town. He doesn't want to explain how he earned a Purple Heart Medal for putting his life on the line and rescuing a classroom full of children, and neither does he want to talk about that one little life he couldn't save. He came back from that hell alive, but the horrible scar on his leg runs deep, deep through his soul - his limp is a constant reminder of that devastating experience.
They say soul mates are connected by invisible threads, so wherever they are in the world they will find each other at some point: when the young doctor meets Patience, he inexplicably feels the pull of that thread. The attraction is wild and mutual, but "the course of true love never did run smooth", Shakespeare would say.  The Sparrows Sisters are meant to be alone, or at least this is what they have convinced themselves of. Sorrel, Nettie, and especially proud and prickly Patience,  don't like needing anyone: when they do, it never turns out well. To say nothing of contrasting opinions in matter of medicine: Henry is a man of science, Patience is a sort of wiccan witch, all herbs, natural cures, and the mysterious healing power of her touch.  And yet the connection between them is as strong as a spell: they have obviously found in each other that powerful balm called 'true love'..."if there was magic to be found, that was it." For the first time in their lives, our lovers are standing on the threshold of real happiness, but when Patience's natural remedies are believed to be responsible for the death of an autistic child, and the entire community of Granite Point turns against her as quickly as the tide, even Henry's faith in her is shaken.  The tragic story of her ancestor Eliza Howard, accused of witchcraft and hated by the crowd, seems to be repeating itself.
Herrick's narrative has great photographic clarity: her descriptive approach burned each scene into my mind with an array of sensory details, a feast of scents, flavors, colors that made the Sparrow's interior landscape and enchanted world of flowers so vivid and memorable.  The 'magical realism' factor is played with symmetric patterns traced between the characters and it ultimately reveals that there is something in this world that is more powerful than a potion spell:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116)
***Review copy graciously offered by the author in exchange for an unbiased and honest opinion