TITLE: Perennial: A Garden Romance
AUTHOR: Mary Anne Mohanraj
87 pages, Lethe Press (Tincture imprint), paperback and e-book formats, ISBN 978-1590216408
DESCRIPTION: (from Goodreads): Perennial tells the story of Kate Smith, an aspiring artist facing a difficult cancer diagnosis, and Devan McLeod, a flower shop owner. It draws on the experiences of the author, Mary Anne Mohanraj, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and treated (successfully) with chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. This little book intercuts poems she wrote over the course of that year with a garden romance. Mohanraj is an enthusiastic Chicagoland amateur gardener, and during treatment, she took great solace in her garden. She hopes this book bring solace and joy to its readers.
MY RATING: Five out of five stars
MY THOUGHTS: Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: this was one of several Advanced Reading Copies / Free Copies sent to me by Lethe Press with the understanding that I’d provide an honest review via various platforms online.
My honest review is: I loved this short, emotional, oh-so-real book.
It’s clear that Mary Anne Mohanraj poured her soul into this one, plugged in so many of the details of her own real-life experiences and coping mechanisms. She brought me to tears several times in these less-than-100 pages, and I’ve re-read it twice this month (although, for organization’s sake, I’m only counting it once in my Reading Challenge and Goodreads counts). The only other novellas featuring a main character fighting cancer that have affected me this way are Jay Lake’s “The Specific Gravity of Grief” and ‘Nathan Burgoine’s “In Memoriam,” both of which I highly recommend.
I should also say I’m not a regular reader of present-day straight romance (what romance I do read tends to be m/m and either historical or supernatural or both), nor am I a frequent reader of poetry (what poetry I do read tends to be written by friends, or a recent return to the epics of the classical age). So this book really falls pretty much completely outside of my wheelhouse in terms of reviewing: I don’t know how to “grade” the poetry, I don’t know how the development of the Kate-Declan romance compares to other books of similar length in this genre. And because I’m not well-versed in those forms/genres, I’m not going to try to review the book from those angles. I will say I found the poetry easy to read and full of emotion and lyricism and raw honesty, but I’ll leave analysis of structure and style to those more scholarly.
I love the novella’s alternating points of view, showing us the blush of first interest on Declan’s part and then Kate’s, and the growing concern for each other’s health and confusion over what they’re feeling in the midst of such life-changing physical and mental trauma. Not being limited to either’s POV for the whole book expands the story’s range of emotion for me. I recognized parts of myself and my own cancer journey in Kate: in her not wanting help, not wanting life to change too drastically, and her eventually realization that it has – cancer treatment leaves no-one unscathed.
I also love that Declan has his own subplot going on, and I recognized parts of him in myself as well: the anniversaries of certain events throw me into a dark funk as deep as the one Declan finds himself in in the second half of the book, although I’ve never experienced what Declan has. I think the subplot is also important to show that Declan is not simply Kate’s knight in shining armor. These two rescue each other, and that really made the story as a whole work for me. (As a side note: I’d fall for Declan if I met him in real life; Scots blood calls to Scots blood, and all that, but that’s neither here nor there.)
If it’s so outside my regular reading zone, why did I pick Perennial up first from the small pile of books Lethe Press sent me? Plain and simple: I trust Mary Anne Mohanraj as a writer. I’ve enjoyed every short story I’ve read by her in recent years, and her name on the cover told me I would be in good hands regardless the genre. Awareness of her as a fellow cancer survivor (colon cancer in 2005 for me, breast cancer in 2016 for Mohanraj) also made me want to read the story sooner rather than later. I wanted it to feel as recent and raw as it could. Not that I think the book will lose its effect over me with time – I still cry every time I pick up the Jay Lake or ‘Nathan Burgoine novellas mentioned above – but with each reread comes a different perspective. I look forward to exploring those new perspectives, and letting more tears flow, on subsequent re-reads of Perennial as well.