Monday, November 20, 2023

The Language of Cherries, by Jen Marie Hawkins

Evie has been yanked out of her home in Miami, where her friends and Abuela are, and transplanted in rural Iceland by her father.  Stuck in a world with cold summers and a night that never grows dark, she feels disconnected.  But then she discovers a near magical cherry orchid that inspires her to create the most amazing paintings and causes her to meet Oskar.

Oskar has every reason to despise Americans.  It was an American tourist who caused the accident where his family were killed.  Five years later, Oskar hasn't been able to get over the loss and it has afflicted him with a stutter that he self-medicates with marijuana.  But despite her nationality, there's something about Evie that draws him close:  her paintings.  She has somehow drawn pictures of his family and of events from his childhood that she could not possibly have known about.  He is obsessed with finding out why.

Embarrassed by his speech problems, he stays mute around her and she  in turn misinterprets this as a language barrier.  Liberated by the idea that he can't understand her, she opens up and freely confesses her innermost thoughts -- her anger at her mother, her longing for her Abuela back in Miami, and her loneliness.  The more she confides, the more Oskar realizes he can't continue to let this go on.  He needs to come clean, but worries about what will happen when she learns the truth.

An extremely slow-paced and lyrical work full of unusual eclectic elements: Evie's Cuban heritage, Oskar's exotic mix of taciturn Scandinavian and pagan Scots, and touches of magic through the cherry trees.  The blurbs describe this as magical realism, but it isn't really that grandiose.  Instead, this is more a subtle supernatural element that enlivens but doesn't distract.  The characters are all quite memorable, but it is more of a study than a story.  The plot alludes to whole slew of plot points (e.g., forgiveness, mother-daughter conflict, intergenerational understanding, and coming of age) but the book is more of a mood piece and there's very little development.

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