Jan/Feb 1999 Book Reviews

Pears on a Willow Tree

Leslie Pietrzyk
Granta, (December 1998)
ISBN: 1 86207 220 5
A$24.95 (paperback) 272 pages

reviewed by Ann Skea

Rose, Helen, Ginger, Amy - four generations of Polish-American women. We meet them first in a photograph which belongs to Amy. Of all the letters and photographs sent to her by her mother, Ginger, this is the only one she has kept. "These are the Marchewka women," her great-grandmother said. The photograph takes her straight back to memories of the family gathered in her great-grandmother's kitchen and to the tensions and ties which divided and linked them.

It could be any family of any nationality where family loyalties and family traditions have been important. It is easy to recognise and understand the conflicts which drive each woman towards independence and yet keep each attached, even unwillingly, to the family. The hard struggle to be unique individuals in the smothering attention of a large, close group; the need to be different to their mothers; the urge for freedom from duty, restraint and ever-watchful eyes; and the desire to be accepted in spite of everything, all pattern these women's lives in different ways. Often it seems that the women want the impossible - a dream, like pears on a willow tree.

Ginger, Amy's mother, is the most rebellious and determined of the women. She is the first to go - moving from Detroit to Arizona. In her freedom, she discovers alcohol, love, pregnancy and marriage, but she becomes an alcoholic and destroys her marriage and alienates her children. Amy has to reconcile her adopted role as protector and rescuer of her mother with her own need to find her own identity. Her move to Thailand, as a teacher of English, is a step towards this but she is drawn back into the family circle by the sudden death of her mother. In the end, she finds this is a mixed blessing.

Rose, the matriarch of the family, migrated from Poland with her husband. She is sure of her role, keeps to her traditions and beliefs, and trains her daughters in the old values and customs. Through all the traumas of migration and the practicalities of adjusting to a strange culture, she only fleetingly dreams that life could, perhaps, have been different. But she knows that dreams must be sacrificed to ensure survival and she accepts this sacrifice, even when it means offering special favours to tradesmen in order to put food on the table.

Helen, Rose's third daughter, seems most like her mother - most tractable and compliant to family pressures. But Helen's rebellions are secret, furtive and sad. Disregarding all family advice when she is pregnant, she dreams of a daughter, not a son. She hides her true feelings, even from her daughter, just as she secretly makes lace for the traditional wedding dress Ginger will never wear and keeps it rolled in the attic. In the funeral home, she steals her mother's blue bead rosary from the coffin and substitutes another. It is unlikely that anyone would have begrudged her this rosary had she asked, but the habit of hiding her real feelings is strong. Finally, too late, she buys suitcases to leave Detroit and go to her daughter, Ginger.

Leslie Pietrzyk lets her women tell their own stories in their own ways. Each chapter is a self-contained glimpse of events which the women remember, some important, some not. One reviewer suggested that Pietrzyk could not break her short-story writing mode and the novel was too episodic. But I liked this method and found that the cumulative effect was a powerful and moving affirmation of the strength of family bonds.

Pietrzyk is realistic about the joys and woes of mother-daughter relationships, but she is a romantic at heart when it comes to family. Such families as the one she depicts here may, themselves, now be as rare as pears on a willow tree, but the need to belong is deeply rooted and this book will stir emotions which some readers may think they had long ago forgotten.


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