Abbi Waxman (she/her) has become one of those authors who surprises me. In the first book I read by her, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, I was pleased by the honesty, warmth, and patience of her characters. Today’s review is about The Garden of Small Beginnings. As someone who is getting her hands dirty in the flowers, weeds, and zucchini (!), I was ready for a gardening-themed novel.
Lili is the single mother of two small girls. Four years ago, her husband was killed in an auto accident, and Lili’s sister, Rachel, has played a big role in the shattered family. Although Lili’s job sounds interesting — she illustrates textbooks — it isn’t until Lili’s boss enlists our protagonist up to illustrate an entire gardening book (and signs Lili up for a Saturday community gardening class) that life gets confusing.
You could boil The Garden of Small Beginnings down to widow-meets-garden-teacher-and-wonders-if-she’s-ready-to-date. But that’s not fair to Waxman. Grief, and how one person’s grief can consume her while she forgets that the person who died had other friends and family, is explored. Do you keep up pictures of your dead spouse? Do you offend your children by dating someone who isn’t their wonderful father? Are you holding back your sister, who is essentially remaining single to play Parent #2? Waxman doesn’t simply write a sad woman, she writes about the sprawl effect of death. As I read, I thought about all the young families with mom or dad gone and dead due to COVID, and wondered if a book about a young person’s (in his 30’s) death would speak to contemporary readers more than when The Garden of Small Beginnings was written.
And like in Nina Hill’s story, Waxman gives us sarcastic, smart, quick-witted characters. Honestly, at one point I thought Lili sounded pretty similar to my brother:
I finished unloading and started reloading [the dishwasher], which is, of course, the reason why housework is so depressing. You do it and undo it and redo it all day. You pick up crap from the kids’-room floor and then the little bastards come along and throw everything down again looking for the tiny princess figure you just secretly threw away.
Some might believe thinking of children as “little bastards” is wrong, but I’ve met enough frustrated parents (and grandparents turned babysitters) to know that internally, children are not safe from name calling in a way that relieves stress!
In fact, all of Waxman’s characters are unexpected, and as we traverse the novel in Lili’s head, we find that her preconceived notions about pretty much everyone in the Saturday gardening class are wrong. Part of the magic of an author like Waxman (and Billie Letts and Anne Lamott) is that every character in the cast does something wonderful by fitting in some way that brings the thing together like a high school musical you had your doubts about up until opening night. Who is this ragtag group of goofballs, and how will they bond? Ah, what a delightful question to explore.
I can’t wait to read Abbi Waxman’s backlog. Also, if you’re interested in another book about life proceeding after “the One” dies, check out Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding.