Read Date: August 22, 2018
Told in split narratives between an Ellis Island nurse in the aftermath of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and a woman widowed by the 9/11 attacks, A Fall of Marigolds uses a blazing marigold scarf to connect these vastly different– and eerily similar– ages, situations, and women, while exploring themes of expectation, reality, and hope.
Just weeks after Clara Wood moves to Manhattan, she survives the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Among the fire’s victims is a gentleman whom Clara knew only on the surface, but their brief interactions over those two weeks carried flirtation, cordiality, and the intimation of a potential relationship. To move on from these losses, Clara moves to Ellis Island to work as the nurse, never leaving the island in the six months she works there out of fear. Is she afraid of more possible losses? Of letting go of Edward and what could have been? Or possibly of discovering something that could completely negate the fledgling romance she thought was brewing? Intrigue! So far, so good!
Enter Andrew Gwynn. An immigrant whose wife died of scarlet fever on the journey from England, Andrew is suspected of possibly carrying the disease as well and is hospitalized and cared for by Nurse Wood. It is at this time that Clara discovers this beautiful scarf that carries not only Andrew’s memories of his late wife, but secrets galore. Through some luggage finagling, Clara makes an interesting discovery about Andrew’s wife, Lily, that could change Andrew’s whole world, but is it Clara’s place to tell him something that he otherwise may never have found out?
The kicker here is that Andrew and Lily only knew each other for about a week before marrying and then were only married for two weeks when she died, and this is where some of the book starts to lose credibility for me. Now, I may not be hip with the 1911 coquetry scene, but knowing someone for two to three weeks and then treating their loss like a devastation from which you’ll never recover just doesn’t seem realistic to me. This is where some of the characters– especially Clara who seems more devoted to her grief than anything and uses it to foster some kind of kinship with Andrew and his grief– just seem melodramatic. As an immigrant going through huge changes, Andrew’s being shaken is purely justified, but when Clara’s friends continue to tell her that she is hanging onto a dream and she owes it to herself to find closure and move on, Clara reacts with indignant denial and refuses to move away from her Ellis Island “in-between place”.
Mingled into all this are snapshots of Taryn, living in 2011 Manhattan and working at a perfectly charming fabric store, and her daughter Kendal, who, upon the impending tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, reminisce on the loss of Taryn’s husband Kent who was in the North Tower at the time of the first crash. When a photo of Taryn on the street during the attack resurfaces on the cover of a magazine, she realizes that she has truths to share with her daughter, and she ponders the reality of coincidences and whether everything really does happen for a reason. Taryn’s story line involves lots of varied characters, a heartbreaking loss, and a stunning marigold scarf with a story that links her to a similar scenario from a century ago.
Meissner inspires several philosophical questions and notions throughout the book: is the dream of something that was never fulfilled better than the reality of having that thing come to fruition? Are there really such things as coincidences, or does every phone call, every left turn, every small delay in our daily lives all conspire together to get us exactly where we need to be at exactly the right time? And of course, both Taryn and Clara grapple with that ever-challenging “If only–“. How many times do we look at a situation and admonish ourselves for not having done something differently? How often do we think, “If only I’d _____”?
There are so many wonderful pieces to this book. The incredibly strong Taryn in contrast with the delicate, and I’d even argue fragile, Clara create a beautiful juxtaposition; I would have loved a slightly varied style of writing between the two women’s narration that could reflect their differences of character. A more even split of story time between Clara and Taryn would also have been welcome. as the story was overwhelmingly revolving around Clara– which I do understand aids the backstory of the scarf– but I found Taryn’s plot line far more interesting. Perhaps the most commendable element of the novel was the reality with which these two devastating disasters were depicted. The detail when regarding both the horrendous attacks on the Twin Towers and the Triangle fire, in addition with the general theme of color throughout the novel, proves Meissner’s incredible ability to fill the mind’s eye with a palette that can’t help but to set a very clear mood in each aspect of the novel.
A very enjoyable read that I do recommend for fans of historical fiction, so long as the reader is willing to suspend a little bit of reality, which, as readers, aren’t we always? Get A Fall of Marigolds here or at your local library!
Thanks for reading 🙂