Deborah Smith is renowned for her graceful, elegant storytelling, and The Stone Flower Garden combines Southern women, Southern secrets, and a garden carved of marble to create an arresting tale. And if the premise is a bit shaky, well, it’s likely that Smith’s many fans won’t notice.
The story opens in memorable fashion:
“On a dark autumn night twenty-five years after I helped bury my great-aunt Clara Hardigree, I found myself digging her up. I felt as if I were playing the lead in some grotesque Southern soap opera. Scarlett O’Hara does the gravesite scene in Hamlet.
Alas, poor Clara, I knew her well.”
Darl Union, granddaughter of Swan Hardigree Samples and the heir to the Hardigree Marble Company, has never forgotten Eli Wade, who came into her life when she was seven years old. The town of Burnt Stand, North Carolina was built on marble - and built of it. When Eli and his family first appear in Burnt Stand, pushing a broken-down pickup truck, Darl is fascinated. She declares that Eli is “hers”. Nobody realizes the chain of events that the reappearance of a Wade will set in motion.
Over the next three years, Eli, Darl, and Darl’s friend Karen meet often in the Stone Flower Garden, a section of the Hardigree estate where large urns of marble flowers decorate the landscape. Karen is the granddaughter of Swan Hardigree’s companion and closest friend, a black woman named Matilda, and she and Matilda live with Darl and Swan. Swan’s sister, Clara, is just a seldom-mentioned name in the Hardigree house until the day she shows up, wanting money.
Clara is as wild as Swan is proper, and their long-standing enmity boils over one night. Swan causes Clara’s death and buries her in the Stone Flower Garden. But it is Eli’s father who is blamed, and a trigger-happy sheriff’s deputy kills him right in front of his family. The Wades soon leave Burnt Stand, and it will be twenty-five years before Darl and Eli meet again.
Darl tries to face her demons be becoming a defense attorney, working for the nonprofit Phoenix Group and defending those least able to help themselves. After her most gut-wrenching case yet, Darl is rescued from an angry mob by a man called Solo, and flown to a beach house in the Florida panhandle to rest and recuperate. Supposedly the head of the Phoenix Group has ordered the R and R. Darl doesn’t recognize Eli at first, though she can’t help but compare the dark-haired Solo to the young Eli, the boy she loved so fiercely and never forgot.
Meanwhile, Eli’s mother and sister are determined to try and uncover the truth after all these years. The lives of these characters will come together again in Burnt Stand, where Darl will have to choose between Swan and Eli.
This story has many facets, and they intertwine neatly to create a compelling tale. There are lots of old secrets in Burnt Stand, of course, and Swan Hardigree is determined not to let them resurface. Swan herself is a compelling character. Stern and matriarchal on the surface, there are hints that underneath she’s a very lonely woman who doesn’t know how to give or receive love easily. She couldn’t control her background or her family, but she can control Hardigree Marble, and it, at least, will turn out well. Woe to anyone who gets in her way.
Darl and Eli are compelling. Darl’s part of the story is told in first-person, while the rest is told in third-person, and the viewpoint moves from Darl to the outside and back again. That works surprisingly well, but what didn’t ring true was Darl’s characterization as a child. Her thought processes and emotions felt more akin to a sixteen-year-old than a little girl. In love with Eli at the age of ten? Never married, never forgot him? Mixed in with this is guilt over Clara’s and Jasper Wade’s deaths. More than anything, Darl seemed to be an emotional mess. The last third of the book is one continuous waffle over whether she should tell Eli the truth. Others may shade this with her confused loyalty to her grandmother, but to me, Darl came across as emotionally helpless, caught in an agony of non-decision. I was more annoyed with her than anything. She was vivid, but I didn’t root for her as strongly as I would have liked.
Eli isn’t quite as vivid as Darl, probably because his story is told in that third-person. We know where he went after Burnt Stand and we know what he did (amassing a fortune, naturally) but we don’t get inside his head and heart the way we do with Darl. He’s a steady guy, caring and competent, and willing to put his family demons to rest. But his reasons for staying away from Darl for twenty-five years didn’t make much sense. Now he believes his father might have done the crime? So he should keep his distance from Darl? That was as clear a picture as I got of his motivations.
Nevertheless, The Stone Flower Garden kept me reading. The hidden secrets make for fascinating twists in the story, and under Deborah Smith’s skillful pen, Burnt Stand comes alive. Eli and Darl’s journey to love is going to resonate with many.