Moonflower Vine Book Review

Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor

The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009

This remarkable novel, first published in 1962, was long-forgotten and out of print for many years. A few years ago author Jane Smiley brought attention to the book in her Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel when she included the title in her list of 100 great novels, along with the classics Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird and Anna Karenina. The book was brought back into print as a “Rediscovered Classic” by HarperCollins Publishers this spring, with Smiley contributing the foreword.

Set in rural Missouri in the early 1900s, The Moonflower Vine is the tale of the Matthew and Callie Soames family, who live a seemingly simple life with their four headstrong daughters. The book begins with an introduction to the family, as they all return as adults for their annual summer visit to the family farm. Jessica comes home from deep in the Ozarks, Leonie from a little town in Kansas and Mary Jo, the youngest, from New York. Their sister Mathy, the family rebel, has died in her late teens. Mary Jo, who critics have said probably most resembles the author, narrates this section of the book and states “Once we got there (to the farm) we were happy enough… No matter that our values differed now, that we had gone our separate ways; when we met like this on familiar ground, we enjoyed one another.” This section of the book is somewhat pastoral in nature, as Mary Jo remembers a simpler time, and culminates with the annual blooming of the moonflower vine.

The story’s remaining sections are told from the point of view of each of the other family members, beginning with Jessica who marries a drifter and settles in southern Missouri; Matthew, a small town teacher and principal who struggles with his shortcomings, especially his attraction to the young girls he teaches; Mathy, the wild child who lives a passionate but short life; Leonie, who tries to be a good and dutiful daughter but has trouble finding her place in the world; and Callie, the quiet but strong matriarch who understands and loves her family, but bears her own secret. All of Carleton’s characters wrestle with morality--the family is a God-fearing Methodist household--as they deal with love, deception, unfaithfulness and forgiveness. Smiley writes in her book “The Moonflower Vine could have been a scandalous novel. But by presenting each character’s desire as a moral dilemma for that character and especially by consistently depicting the bonds of love that eventually hold the family together, she succeeds in arousing both empathy and sympathy in the readers.”

While the story-line is compelling, what makes this book so extraordinary is the beautiful way it is written. Carleton’s description of the landscape and setting is detailed, but not overly done. Her characters’ descriptions are exceptional, with a great feel for their emotions and weaknesses. Throughout the book, the language is exquisite. Readers will most certainly find themselves re-reading passages to fully appreciate the grace and beauty of the writing.

The Moonflower Vine was the only book published by Jetta Carleton, who worked as a schoolteacher, a radio copywriter in Kansas City, and a television advertising copywriter in New York City, before operating a small publishing house in New Mexico. It is an unforgettable and captivating portrayal of a heartland family and the bonds of love that hold it together.