Should your book club read Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum? A resounding “yes!” is the answer. This intriguing novel is the ideal choice for a book club; it’s a compelling read, the writing is beautiful, and there is a lot to discuss. In fact, the publisher, Simon & Schuster, realizing the appeal Amaryllis in Blueberry would have for book clubs, produced a paperback in order to make it more affordable, and completely skipped the hardcover stage.
You may not know Meldrum’s work because her first novel, Madapple, was pegged for the YA (young adult) market, where it received immediate and widespread critical and commercial success, landing as a finalist on more than one prize shortlist. (And you know how I like literary prizes!) Amaryllis in Blueberry is her first “grown up” novel, although I think this is a “crossover” book, one that would appeal to the “young adult” market as well as to the “adult” market. Hmm..not sure that’s what we’re called, but you know what I mean, right?
Dick and Seena Slepy are married, but we get the feeling that their marriage has become a sort of prison for them. Each is unhappy in his/her own way, and we soon learn that each has a secret that is feeding this unhappiness. Dick decides that the only way to escape his miserable situation is to go to Africa as a medical missionary, and he drags his family–his wife and four daughters–along.
The oldest three girls each have the first name of Mary, but are called by their middle names, and each one harbors a corrosive secret of her own. The youngest daughter, Amaryllis, is called Yllis, and early in the book, Amaryllis seemingly discovers yet another family secret and opens it up to the family, unleashing an unforeseen chain of events that will change each and every one of them.
So, what can your book club discuss?
There are lots of secrets in this book, and much to discover. Meldrum weaves mythological stories into the plot of the book, and does it so well and so seemingly effortlessly that the reader ends up learning not only about the Slepy family, but also about age-old stories, and why we tell them. The book explores all sorts of stories, from religion to science to family legends to stories we tell ourselves to get through the day, and your book club will want to discuss the how and why of these tales.
Another theme running through the novel is truth or Truth–what it is, whether it exists, how we reach it, and how we hold onto it. This is quite a philosophical novel, but done in an understated way, through the very compelling main story. A philosophical page-turner, if you will.
Meldrum is a beautiful writer, and some of her prose reads almost like poetry. Your book club will have a blast with the imagery–note the literary nod to Conrad with the light/dark imagery, and have fun deciphering the symbolism in the story–do the characters represent someone or something other than themselves? What does Africa represent? Can we do a Freudian reading of this novel? Pay attention to the names and how they give meaning to the tale.
In the end, this novel seems to be about redemption, about hope, about having a second chance. As the Slepy family returns to America, forever changed by their stay in Africa, they seemed poised to take on a life without secrets. Or do they? Which secrets remain? This is something your book club will want to discuss!
Bottom line: yes, your book club should read Amaryllis in Blueberry–it’s a perfect choice–and I am looking forward to more writing from this incredibly talented author!