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Are You Grieving? You Should Definitely Read Fresh Water for Flowers

Valerie Perrin's novel

A bundle of pink roses on a tombstone as might be seen in Valerie Perrin's novel, Fresh Water for Flowers.

The wonderful thing about belonging to a book club is that you are introduced to books you might not otherwise pick up. If I were book browsing, I probably wouldn't have chosen to read this book based on its dark and subdued cover:


book cover for Fresh Water for Flowers featuring the back of a woman's hair, pinned with pink roses

I doubt that the blurb featured on GoodReads and Amazon would have piqued my interest, either:


Violette Toussaint is the caretaker at a cemetery in a small town in Bourgogne. Her life is lived to the predictable rhythms of the often funny, always moving confidences that casual mourners, regular visitors, and sundry colleagues share with her. Violette’s routine is disrupted one day by the arrival of Julien Sole—local police chief—who has come to scatter the ashes of his recently deceased mother on the gravesite of a complete stranger. It soon becomes clear that Julien’s inexplicable gesture is intertwined with Violette’s own complicated past.

But the assignment of this novel for book club did, without doubt, give me the motivation to read it.


Named the Best Book of Summer 2021 by Wall Street Journal


I'm glad I did. Fresh Water for Flowers is an interesting, intricate story about Violette Toussaint's journey through grief. Saying that, however, makes the book sound stuffy and depressing, and it was neither of those. It was sweet and poignant. Sometimes funny. Sometimes wise. Sometimes sad.


I laughed out loud a few times. I developed an affection for the three gravediggers, Elvis, Gaston, and Nono. My heart was nearly stopped at the poignant beauty of a certain chapter. (I don't want to tell you which one because I don't want to take away from your reading experience, but take my word for it. One particular chapter slayed me.)


Fresh Water for Flowers is a different kind of novel that weaves several love stories together with the story of a devastating loss.


But it is more than about grief. It's about human nature, the varied reactions of people to loss, and the rituals we go through to deal with death. It's also about seeing the beauty - and actively cultivating it - before coming through on the other side of despair, appreciating life even more after surviving a tragedy.


This book touched a nerve with many other people. It was published during the pandemic, a time when many were contemplating their mortality. It was a number one bestseller in France in 2020, named an Indie Pick of the Year, and the Best Book of the Summer in 2021 by the Wall Street Journal.


Fair Warning

One of my friends who knows of the private incremental grief I'm suffering, warned me that Fresh Water for Flowers was a book about death. Violette, the main character, is, after all, the head caretaker of a large cemetery.


I have, however, always been strangely comforted by cemeteries. I like to walk in them, thinking about the history embedded in them, inventing stories about the people buried there, reading the heartfelt epitaphs, and contemplating the inevitable end that will come to all of us.


So I wasn't saddened by the setting of Fresh Water for Flowers. It didn't bother me that Violette kept detailed records of each funeral, writing down what was said, how many people came to the service, or what flowers were present. I was interested in - not offended by - the warm and natural talk about the lives of those who "passed."


Another "fair warning." Not only does this novel deal with some death, but it is also NOT a fast read. At times, the multiple histories and backstories became cumbersome, and I had to concentrate on which storyline and character I was following, but the effort was well worth it.


Gardening and Epitaphs in Fresh Water for Flowers


I love flowers, and Fresh Water for Flowers focuses on two women who love to plant things, making the world more beautiful. The urge to kneel in the dirt, smell the earth, and propagate bulbs is universal, an acknowledgment that the world will go on and spring will come again.


The epitaphs were my favorite part of the book. (I used to have an entire volume of epitaphs, but it is no longer on my shelves and I have no idea where it ran off to.)

Each chapter begins with an epitaph taken off a tombstone in Violette's graveyard.


"There will always be someone missing to make my life smile: You."
"May your rest be as sweet as your heart was kind."
"Warbler, if you fly above this tomb, sing him your sweetest song."

and


"If a flower grew every time I think of you, the earth would be one massive garden"

along with many others.


Other wisdom

As caretaker and overseer of the cemetery, Violette receives many visitors and mourners who come to pay respects to their loved ones. One of those visitors is a police detective named Julien Sole who is trying to understand why his dead mother requested that her remains be placed with a total stranger, not his father.


As Violette's story is revealed, so is the story of Julien's mother. Details emerge in memories and journal entries, and many profound observations about dealing with grief rise to the surface:


"Talking about you is making you exist; saying nothing would be forgetting you."
"There's something stronger than death, and that's the presence of those absent in the memory of the living."
"Life is but an endless losing of all that one loves."

At the beginning of Fresh Water for Flowers, Violette clues us in that she will survive, but it's an easy message to miss in the early pages. She says,


"I have been very unhappy, destroyed even. Nonexistent. Drained. .. But since I've never had a taste for unhappiness, I decided it wouldn't last. Unhappiness has to stop someday."

The resilience and buoyancy of the human spirit win in the end, and I cheered for Violette, the cemetery keeper who loved her life.


Who is Valerie Perrin?

Valerie Perrin's official biography, put out by her publisher, Europa Editions reads like this:


Valérie Perrin was born in 1967 in Remiremont, in the Vosges Mountains, France. She grew up in Burgundy and settled in Paris in 1986. Her novel The Forgotten Sunday (2015) won the Booksellers Choice Award and the paperback edition has been long-selling best-seller since publication. Her English-language debut, Fresh Water for Flowers (Europa, 2020) won the Maison de la Presse Prize, the Paperback Readers Prize, and was named a 2020 ABA Indies Introduce and Indie Next List title. It has been translated into over thirty languages. Figaro Littéraire named Perrin one of the ten best-selling authors in France in 2019, and in Italy, Fresh Water for Flowers was the best selling book of 2020. Perrin now lives in Normandy

Something different

If you like reading novels NOT based on some pre-ordained formula...

If you enjoy piecing stories together...

If you like endings with a twist...

If you are strong enough to acknowledge that grief will come to all of us and that we'll have to find the strength to come through it.....


Most of all, if you believe that living each day to its fullest is crucial because life can be unexpectedly short, read Fresh Water for Flowers.


 

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Buy Fresh Water for Flowers from Barnes and Noble (brick and mortar & online retailer)


 


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