The Mulberry Tree attempts to be women’s fiction, romance, and mystery all at once, and succeeds at none of them. Instead, readers are left with a confusing, unfocused mishmash of plot elements that leave the impression the story was made up as the author went along.
Lillian Manville is the wife of one of the world’s richest men, James Manville. When James is killed in the crash of his private plane, James’s lawyer, Phillip, awakens Lillian in the middle of the night. He has bad news. James left his entire estate to his hated siblings, Atlanta and Ray. Lillian will inherit a rundown house in Virginia and fifty thousand dollars. And there’s a note from James, which instructs Lillian to “find out the truth about what happened” and assuring her how much he loves her. Phillip wants Lillian to load up on furniture and items for the house, before the will is made public. He’s also bought Lillian a car.
Atlanta and Ray immediately strip Lillian of all her personal possessions, including her clothing. (Why they didn’t take the car and household stuff is never mentioned.) Lillian, at Phillip’s urging, gets a nose job, changes her name to Bailey James, and heads for Virginia, where she finds that the farmhouse is indeed rundown. Bailey is determined to stay, however. Phillip, using his own money, does his best to have the house repaired. When two women show up to welcome Bailey, cousins who each pretend the other doesn’t exist, the book takes on Wacky Southern Humor overtones, which immediately fizzle out. One of the women, Patsy, has a brother-in-law who does remodeling. She’ll send him out. He arrives at dinnertime.
Matt Longacre is impressed with Bailey’s cooking - so impressed, in fact, that he offers her a deal: let him move in and pay room and board, and he’ll remodel the house for the cost of the materials. Anything to escape his sister-in-law’s cooking. Bailey agrees and a hint of romance is in the air. Bailey decides to make a living by canning and selling unusual jams and condiments, while investigating James’s background. He once lived in this house. And there’s the story of the Golden Six, a group of six local boys who once saved an entire school from a bomb and later were involved in a murder-suicide and hanging. What’s the big secret that nobody talks about? How does it relate to James Manville?
Well, you’ve got me, because there are so many pieces to the Golden Six story alone that I completely lost track. Trying to keep up with six different characters, their backgrounds, their spouses, and their eventual destinies would have filled an entire book, and these are just side characters. The Big Secret at the end made no sense as related to James. If he was one of the world’s richest men, the ultimate revelation (which it seems he already knew) would have been meaningless. The reasoning given - that he didn’t want anyone to pity him - was flimsy at best. As for the rest of the plot threads, the story bounces from Bailey to the locals to the canning idea to the possible romance to the Golden Six and back again. A real Pinball Plot. The last third of the book is concentrated on the Golden Six thing, which was by far the least interesting and most confusing of all the plot threads. I just didn’t care anymore.
The romance between Matt and Bailey is a flop. These two have no more chemistry than a pair of shoes. We are told that Bailey loves Matt, eventually, and that Matt loves Bailey, but goodness knows why. Most of the book is written in a flat, “telling” style, so we never see Matt and Bailey developing much of a relationship. The first chapter is written in first person, from Bailey’s point of view, and then the book inexplicably shifts to third person with chapter two, so we don’t even get the benefit of being inside Bailey’s head. These characters never came to life at all.
As for the “journey of self-discovery” angle, it meanders aimlessly throughout the book. Bailey loves the house. She’s going to find out what she’s good at, having married James at seventeen and spent fifteen years in his shadow. Bailey eventually sets up her canning factory, and then the entire thread of this venture disappears out of the story, never to be heard from again, while the plot segues into more about the Golden Six. It seems that Bailey’s biggest discoveries are not about herself, but about her beloved late husband, and they are not pretty. To call him a selfish, controlling jerk would be kind. The more I got to know James Manville, the more I detested him, and I’m not sure that was the author’s intent.
The final irritant was the author’s unceasing use of the dialog tags “he said softly” and “she said softly”. I swear, this appeared on nearly every page of the book. If people weren’t speaking softly, they were whispering. At one point, I picked up a highlighter and started marking them, just for fun (and to keep from doing bigger damage to the book).
Wooden characters, clunky writing, and a plot that seems to have been spit out of a Cuisinart do not a good book make. I’m trying, I really am, to think of one reason to recommend this book and I just can’t manage it. If you are a diehard Jude Deveraux fan, you may want to give this a look. Even at that, I’d recommend getting it from the library. For all the other readers out there, I can only say that The Mulberry Tree was a major disappointment and not worth your time.