Book Review: “Broken Homes and Gardens” by Rebecca Kelley

After a few months of not reading much, you could say I’m going on a bit of a bender. With harvest season long over, my recovery period complete, and the third book in the Seeds trilogy finally finished, I have at last had some time to come up for a breather and do some reading.

I have decided to spend this time devouring books I’ve meant to read for years, and BROKEN HOMES AND GARDENS, by Rebecca Kelley, is one of them. Full disclosure: the book was published by my mom’s company, Blank Slate Press, so I might have a slight bias. That said, I also have an intrinsic bias away from the book’s stated genre: lit fic with a romance slant. So with luck, the two will cancel each other out.

Broken Homes Gardens 2016 Cover

BROKEN HOMES AND GARDENS, Kelley’s debut novel, is the story of Joanna and Malcolm’s unconventional (but very recognizable) relationship in modern-day Portland. Against a rainy backdrop and an extremely accurate depiction of America’s weirdest city, Joanna and Malcolm fall in love, fall out of love, hang out, break up, sleep together, sleep around, opt for radio silence, and then finally…well, I won’t spoil it for you.

Joanna is an English teacher with no aspirations to be a writer; Malcolm is a contractor/carpenter who is good with his hands, apparently in more ways than one. Joanna loves to garden and quickly becomes obsessed with the adorable little houses that comprise the Portland cityscape. Early on in the book, she buys a ramshackle cottage and proceeds to dote on the accompanying garden, ignoring entirely the decrepit house itself. When Malcolm finds himself out of work, and sufficient romantic tension has already been built between them, he offers to move in with her and fix up the house for her by way of paying rent.

Joanna is nothing if not self-indulgent, though I won’t go so far as to say neurotic. Like many women trying to navigate the vagaries of modern dating, she spends half her time trying to psychoanalyze Malcolm, and the other half her time pretending she doesn’t care about him – or anyone else – at all. Malcolm, too, is a pretty typical dude: unable to fully express his emotions, and incapable of coming out and telling Joanna what he really wants. But then again, in the world of modern dating, does anyone really know what they want?

I tore through this book. I read it in a day and a half one weekend, powering through with a furious desire to get to the end and find out exactly how Joanna and Malcolm were going to make it work. Like any good romance novel, it was obvious from the beginning that the story was about them, and no one else – all the other men and women who flitted through their lives were either window dressing or pawns to set the stage. Even Joanna’s family members never really take a primary-character role: the story is about the two convoluted lovers, trying to figure out where they fit in each others’ lives.

BROKEN HOMES AND GARDENS is almost a bellwether for romance in the 21st century, a kind of Pride and Prejudice that historians might look back at years from now and analyze, discussing how dating technology has evolved since then and how our cultural norms have changed. Complete with references to online dating, the impossibility of making a real commitment, and the vague, careerless paths a lot of us 20-somethings are on, Kelley’s debut could inform future generations of how dating and marriage worked in the past.

For not being a romance reader I enjoyed this book quite a bit. This is a very character-driven novel, which made it more enjoyable. There was only one act of authorial artifice, and that came at the very end, at which point it was (almost) forgivable. Engineered car crashes at the end of a book tend to make me a little angry, but in this case, given that Kelley hadn’t done anything like that throughout the length of the novel, I chose to overlook it. I liked that it was a stand-alone, and that it was a quick read. And I liked that all the characters were both relatable and human – no one was perfect, and no one was intolerable.

A recommended read for fans of romance and literary fiction, and especially for fans of the Portlandia world and people who are extremely confused by how dating works in the 21st century. This book won’t provide any answers, but it will provide some laughs.