Pub. Date: May 2, 2017
Source: e-ARC via publisher (Thank you, Berkley Books!)
Summary: Lilian Girvan has been a single mother for three years—ever since her husband died in a car accident. One mental breakdown and some random suicidal thoughts later, she’s just starting to get the hang of this widow thing. She can now get her two girls to school, show up to work, and watch TV like a pro. The only problem is she’s becoming overwhelmed with being underwhelmed.
At least her textbook illustrating job has some perks—like actually being called upon to draw whale genitalia. Oh, and there’s that vegetable-gardening class her boss signed her up for. Apparently being the chosen illustrator for a series of boutique vegetable guides means getting your hands dirty, literally. Wallowing around in compost on a Saturday morning can’t be much worse than wallowing around in pajamas and self-pity.
After recruiting her kids and insanely supportive sister to join her, Lilian shows up at the Los Angeles Botanical Garden feeling out of her element. But what she’ll soon discover—with the help of a patient instructor and a quirky group of gardeners—is that into every life a little sun must shine, whether you want it to or not…
Genre: Fiction, Contemporary, Humor
It’s been nearly four years since Dan was tragically killed in a car accident just outside his home. Lilian saw the scene play out, unable to do anything, and shortly after gave herself over to grief. Over time and with the help of her sister, Lili has slowly managed to learn how to face a world without her husband, a new life where she’s sole parent to their two little girls.
Her job as an illustration for a textbook company allows her the creative freedom to jump from American Presidents to whale anatomy to her latest project, vegetables. When one of the most prominent gardening companies chooses their publishing company for their latest how-to guide, Lili’s boss hands her the project, along with word that Roberta took the liberty to sign Lili up for a summer-long gardening class. Not exactly how she imagined spending her Saturdays, but hey, it’s not like she had better plans and kids are welcome. While she did anticipate the dirt and digging, Lili had no idea that their tiny group would open her eyes and allow her to finally allow some happiness into her life.
I’ll be honest: when the publicist first reached out to me about this one, I was intrigued. The Garden of Small Beginnings certainly sounded good, but I had no idea just how good. I read this near-400-page novel in a single sitting. Lili’s grief, her toxic relationship with her former model mother, her amazing relationship with her sister Rachel, the way she handles curveball after curveball that life throws at her (Dan’s death, the abrupt announcement the art department will be cut), it was all so captivating that I couldn’t look away. I feel a little morbid saying that, that this woman’s pain was hypnotic, but it was how she faced that pain – and the rallying support of those around her (whether she knew they were providing support or not) completely drew me in.
Though the story was certainly engaging, it was the characters that truly made this book for me. Lili’s young daughters, meticulous and serious 7-year-old Anabel and 5-year-old Clare who lives for My Little Pony and dances to the beat of her own orchestra; an older lesbian couple; fellow single mom Angie who grew up poor and is still struggling to make it on her own; a carefree surfer-slash-stoner who proves that appearances can be deceiving; a perpetually frowning, newly retired banker who’s actually a big ol’ softie; Edward, scion of the Bloem gardening empire and leader of their gardening group. Lili’s sister-in-law and Dan’s parents also play huge roles in the book – there are seriously a ton of characters and they’re the quintessential rag-tag bunch, but I loved each and every one of them. The way Waxman created each one, giving them all their own personalities and unique voices, I grew (ha!) to love these characters in the all-too-short time I spent with them!
It’s no secret that romance works its way into the book and watching Lili go through the process of guilt, excitement, confusion, the whole gamut of emotions that come with moving on as a widow was both heartbreaking and a joy. Naturally she doesn’t want to move on – despite Rachel’s and even her own in-laws’ numerous attempts to get her to date – and when she develops a crush on Edward, she isn’t sure what to make of it. Would Dan want her to date again? What would her daughters think? She’s not trying to replace their father. For his own part, Edward is so, so patient and kind and just an all-around fantastic character.
One thing that surprised me about this book was just how funny it was! Lili’s witty, uber sarcastic observations had me giggling the entire time – and I know it’s bad form to quote review copies, but I just HAD to share her thoughts on Target, because seriously, haven’t we all been there:
Thank you, Target, sanctuary to those of us who wander your aisles in aimless search for the one thing we came in for and the forty-two things we didn’t, but which, at that price, we could not resist.
I had only one issue with The Garden of Small Beginnings and it’s honestly so minor and definitely a Me problem that I’m sure wouldn’t make other readers bat an eye. Lili’s babysitter is named Leah – yay, a character with my name! However, at one point, Lili refers to her as Lee. I get that she said it as a nickname, but I hate when people mispronounce my name as Lee or try to shorten my name to it. Again, this single sentence was one that annoyed me and only me.
I’m both delighted and sad that The Garden of Small Beginnings is Abbi Waxman’s debut. On the one hand, it’s a phenomenal book full of humor and heart and depth complete with such a lovable group of characters and I’m SO excited to see where she goes from here. On the other hand, I loved this book so much that I want to read more from her and can’t. I went into this book expecting an entertaining read and what I got was an intensely compelling novel that held me captive and lured me in more and more with each page.