Tuesday, November 10, 2015

#MMBBR Blog Tour Host: The Light of Hidden Flowers by Jennifer Handford

Book-smart Melissa Fletcher lives a predictable life in her hometown, working behind the scenes for her charismatic father in a financial career that makes perfect sense. But when her dad is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Missy is forced to step up and take over as his primary caregiver and the principal of the firm.
After her father’s death, Missy finds a letter from him in which he praises her for being a dutiful daughter but admonishes her for not taking any risks in life.
Devastated, Missy packs her suitcase and heads for Italy. There she meets a new friend who proposes a radical idea. Soon, Missy finds herself in impoverished India, signing away her inheritance and betting on a risky plan while rekindling a lost love.
The Light of Hidden Flowers is a deeply felt story of accepting who we are while pushing our boundaries to see how much more we can become. It’s a reminder that it’s never too late to pursue our dreams.

Although the book started a bit slow, it definitely gained momentum and it became a book that was hard to put down!  The book is about a bond between a father and his daughter and the love they share.  It is about how one must follow their dreams and no matter how late you start it is worth trying.
I loved how the author detailed the difficulties of Missy having to take over as her father's caregiver (after his Alzheimer diagnosis).  In addition to taking care of her father's physical needs, she also had to take over his financial business. I thought the letter Missy's father left her was a little hard to swallow, but I loved that Missy left her comfort and security of home and traveled to Italy and then onto India. I give this 4 stars as I could not put it down.  I loved the messages it contained... the journey of love, the heartbreak due to the death of a parent and the fact that it is never too late to follow your dreams.

A conversation with
author of
Lake Union Publishing, November 10, 2015

Q: You are the author of two previous novels, Daughters for a Time and Acts of Contrition, which have sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide and have been translated into several languages. What can your readers expect from your third novel? How does it compare and differ from the previous two?

A: The Light of Hidden Flowers is new territory for me in that my main character is a single woman, age 35, who has never been married nor had children.  In my two other books, the foundation of marriage and children were central to the plot and the main character’s development.  The “wife/mother” personas are definitely ones from which I have much to draw.  In this book, I’m writing for a woman who is going it alone.  She lives a rather ordinary life and she knows it.  She is aware that she has gathered birthdays without gathering the attendant benchmarks that typically depict success: a self-made career, marriage, children.  When her dad—who is her crutch—dies, she is forced to push through her comfort zone and discover new territory but the ground she’s moving toward isn’t definable in a tangible sense.  She knows she wants to get out of town but it isn’t until she’s far away that she realizes how much life is out there for her to experience.  She comes to find herself in a very real way.  What’s the same in this novel as my previous two novels is the character-driven narrative.  While the plot turns the pages, it’s the development of the characters that endears the readers, I hope.

Q: An overarching theme of The Light of Hidden Flowers is that it is never too late to pursue our dreams. Your own career as a writer is a testament to this idea. In 2010, on a whim you entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest and won a first-place award among thousands of entries. A writing career was born: you subsequently published two novels and accepted a position as Professor of Writing at American University. What did you learn about yourself in that process and how does it translate on the pages of your new novel?

A: My mid-career shift from a financial planner to a writer really opened my eyes to the fact that some of us are meant to try a few different careers before settling in.  When I graduated from school with degrees in political science, nothing excited me more than the idea of moving to Washington, D.C. and working for the CIA.  Ultimately I didn’t pursue that career and was instead pulled in the direction of finance, which I enjoyed very much for many years.  But writing nagged at me, and I finally decided to acknowledge that I might have another interest worth pursuing. That’s when I wrote my first novel and entered the contest.  Now that I’m a full-time writer and I see the attention to detail that I give my work, I know that this is where I’m meant to be.  If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be able to sit at my computer each day and stare at the same piece of writing for hours.  I tried my hand at teaching and while I gave it “the old college try,” I learned that I was much more a “behind the scenes” type of person rather than an “in front of the classroom” type of person.  I can honestly say that teaching is the hardest job I’ve ever done.

Q: On to the themes of the book: After her father’s death, your protagonist Missy Fletcher discovers a letter he has left for her. In it he encourages her to “be brave.” He writes: “You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” What beautiful advice for a parent to give a child. You are the mother of two teenage girls. As you were writing, did you reflect on what advice you might give them at this stage in their lives? What would that advice be?

A: As the mother of two thirteen year olds, I’m dealing with these issues on a daily basis.  My girls want to be more independent but I worry about the consequences of this.  As a parent, I want nothing more than to protect them from hurt feelings, awkward and difficult situations, and danger.  But I also know that they need to have these experiences in order to own them, to absorb them in their DNA, so that they’re better equipped, wiser, braver, the next time around.  Being the mother of daughters is tough because on one hand, I’m the ultimate feminist, wishing for every opportunity for them.  On the other hand, I hardly want to see them ship off with the Peace Corp, or fly combat planes into warzones, or even have to elbow their way to the corporate table. I believe in the fight, but don’t necessarily want my daughters to be the fighters.  That’s the scared side of me.  The brave side of me would be so proud to see them take on the world.  And I would cheer them every step of the way, especially if they were doing something very brave like helping the third world or serving in the military.

Q: Missy ultimately takes her father’s advice, packs her suitcase, and heads for Italy and beyond.  The “chuck it all and head abroad” idea seems to be a popular move for women in pop culture and literature these days. However, for many women, leaving everything behind may not be a realistic possibility. What are some other ways you’ve witnessed women living bravely and exploring beyond their comfort zone? Can you speak from your own experience or experience of others you’ve encountered when researching the book?

A: Yes, we all can’t Eat-Pray-Love our way through an adventure.  Some of us must stay put, but that isn’t to say that we can’t stretch outside our comfort zone.  I think one of the most remarkable changes a woman can make in her life is to put herself first, at least some of the time!  I was at a breakfast recently with a group of women and one of them said that it had taken her forty five years to finally realize that she was a better person for her husband and children when she took some time out for herself.  Another woman piped in and said, “Yes, like the oxygen mask on the airplane – put yours on first before you tend to your child.”  I thought that was great.  It shouldn’t be such a groundbreaking thought but for mothers, we’re so used to pushing our wants and needs down on the list of things to do, we end up exhausted and frankly, sucked of our identity.  I think when a woman pursues her own interests, not only does it feed her soul and mind, it shows her children and husband the interesting person hiding beneath the chauffeur hat and chef coat. 

Q: PEOPLE magazine praised Acts of Contrition, writing: “This swift, satisfying read is like perching at the kitchen counter with your best girlfriend and best bottle of red.”  Indeed, your ability to write candidly about tough topics and probe the tender parts of women’s lives has made you a book club favorite.  How are you able to capture women’s experiences so accurately—do you have a group of girlfriends you mine for material over a bottle of red? Or is it mostly imagined?

A: The goal in writing is to make the personal “universal.”  With Daughters, it was easier for me to dig into my own memory bank because I dealt with infertility for years and any woman who has, shares the same feelings. I remember my friend—who also struggled getting pregnant—said she felt like I had invaded her brain because I accurately described her frustration.  I just happened to know that one!  Same with adoption.  But other issues in my books: cancer, and then infidelity in Acts, and now introversion and bravery in Hidden Flowers, were purely imagined.  But of course, we all have felt the underlying emotions: helplessness, shame, guilt, fear, reluctance.  I think the first step to writing realistically and really tapping into a woman’s mind is acknowledging that none of us is perfect.  Making my characters flawed helps me tremendously as I try to figure out what their behavior would be in a certain situation.  I think about my main character in The Light of Hidden Flowers, she is as good as a person can be: devoted daughter, philanthropic, patriotic, and yet she carries on with a little bit of duplicity, stringing along one guy when she’s in love with another.  Like most of us, her intention is good, but some of her behavior is questionable, at times. I think when you put your character in a tough spot—a questionable spot—you’re able to get at her motivation better.

Q: You wrote the book from two alternating points of view: the first from Missy Fletcher’s perspective and the second from the perspective of Joe Santelli, Missy’s first love. Joe is a retired military veteran who experienced first-hand the trauma of war and lives with those memories. How were you able to capture his experience in such a visceral way? What sort of research did you do in order to understand and shape who Joe was?

A: I love writing from the male perspective.  It’s just fun to have the challenge of thinking differently and putting together language that would match the male mind versus the female mind.  I knew Joe would be a good upstanding guy, but he wasn’t flawless. So from the beginning he says of his break-up with his wife that “there was plenty of blame to go around” to show that he has accountability to the separation.  And how he deals with his daughter, his default is to “fix” which is very male, when he knows he should just “listen.” I read many books on Afghanistan and Iraq and the soldiers and Marines who fought. My father-in-law is Marine from the Vietnam era and I consulted with a modern-day Marine who has served many tours.  He read my “Joe” pages for accuracy.  I’d say, “Would a Marine say that?”  And he’d comment, “Not in a million years.”  It was great working with someone who has actually lived the life.

Q: Without giving away any spoilers, can you reflect on the book’s title and why you chose it?

A: The title pays tribute to the idea is that there is more in each of us than we actual know.  Thus, “the light of hidden flowers.”  It comes from a Pablo Neruda poem Sonnet XVII where he says “I love you as the plant that never blooms but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers.” I was attracted to the idea that there is much to love in every person but sometimes the treasures are buried under layers of insecurity and self-doubt.  With my main character being an introvert, the title struck me right away.  Missy had much more to give.  It wasn’t until her father died and she was challenged to step from his shadows that she realized how much light was in her.

Q: In THE LIGHT OF HIDDEN FLOWERS, Missy is forced to confront some of life’s major themes: family, death, memory, regret, love, the march of time, risk, and what it means to truly live. What do you hope readers take away from the book? What did you learn about yourself in writing it?

A: Missy loved her father with blind devotion her entire life, even though he sometimes ribbed her for not being like him. It isn’t until the very end that she comes to terms with this and reconciles that she could have harbored more anger toward him for not loving her as perfectly as she loved him.  But she doesn’t. She knows that he loved her the best he could and in his own way, his love was whole. In general, I think grown children are critical of their parents and are willing to blame just about everything that has gone wrong in their lives on their parents.  Missy’s unconditional love and ultimate forgiveness of her father is a good example of how a grown child should regard her parents, I think.

Missy also comes to learn that life can neither be planned nor judged on any sort of timeline.  The years that she considers as rather uneventful (her twenties and early thirties, working with her father) might end up to be rather dear to her now that she has lost her father, and this next decade—with Joe, an inherited family, perhaps, and charity work—might prove to be enough excitement to last her a lifetime.  You never know what you have until it’s gone.  You never know what’s right around the corner.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: My next project, a novel titled From Disaster, will take readers to 1964, the year of the civil rights legislation, the year of much hope followed by much tumult.  We will meet a young mother, Diana, who is assaulted while at the laundromat.   We will also meet Astrid, age 50, in modern time, who is dealing with her grown daughter’s bi-polar depression.  In alternating chapters, we learn that these two women are connected through time and history, family and tragedy.  Diana pushes forward to regain her life, while Astrid travels back in order to understand hers.  And Sophia—Astrid’s beautiful, yet tortured daughter—who fights her depression to stay on this earth, just might be the thread that holds these women together.  


Reviews for Daughters for a Time:

“A wrenching, resonant debut about infertility, cancer and adoption.  Grab your hankies.”  —People Magazine

“[DAUGHTERS] has touched a nerve.”  –Washington Post

“Equally heartfelt and hopeful, DAUGHTERS FOR A TIME is a powerful exploration of what it means to be a mother, a sister, a daughter. Tender and poignant, Handford weaves a captivatingly honest story that will have you smiling and weeping throughout – often within the same paragraph.”  –Heather Gudenkauf, bestselling author of The Weight of Silence

“Handford tells Helen’s tale with freshness and perception, creating a novel that—much like one of the desserts Helen finds comfort in making—is sweet but substantial, and composed of everyday ingredients elevated by skill and attention.”  –Martha Moody, bestselling author of Best Friends

“Helen is the rare protagonist who manages to confront her past, face her fears, and exhibit grace in the face of calamity…while retaining believability and humanity…” –Publishers Weekly

“So polished I can’t believe it’s her first novel.”  –Bill Thompson, Eye on Books

“DAUGHTERS FOR A TIME is a brutally honest but captivating peek at the powerful hold human connections and the pursuit of motherhood can have on the human spirit….A story filled with the truths of compassion, dedication and losses many of us must face in life… [It] will draw you in and have you rooting for [protagonist] Helen Francis.” –Kay Bratt, Author of Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage

[DAUGHTERS] will definitely tug on your heartstrings.  Fiction readers who don’t mind tough subjects will enjoy this book.”  –4-Stars – A Bookish Affair

“Readers will appreciate this well written character study as grief is customized and a loving family helps each other move on.”  —Genre Go Round Reviews

“Poignant, penetrating, and full of raw emotional power, it’s a heart-wrenching tale of a woman who must face the joys and sorrows of life as she struggles to find her place as a mother, sister, daughter, and wife.” –She Knows

“Handford has created a believable scenario of a woman coming to grips with heartache….”  –Color Magazine

“Jennifer Handford’s debut novel Daughters for a Time is a poignant, beautiful and at times heartbreaking read.”  –The Reading Frenzy

“Beautiful, beautiful love story.  It will genuinely touch your heart.”  –Jinky is Reading

Reviews for Acts of Contrition
“Jennifer Handford’s ACTS OF CONTRITION smartly imagines the inner life of a wife and mother caught in the cogs of a political scandal. A powerfully intimate tale that illuminates how our past relationships mold and transform us into who we become. — Heather Gudenkauf, New York Times bestselling author of The Weight of Silence, These Things Hidden & One Breath Away.

“This swift, satisfying read is like perching at the kitchen counter with your best girlfriend and best bottle of red – provided your BFF is a D.C.-area mom who’s a riveting storyteller and can’t escape her ex because he’s running for Senate and all over TV. Curling up with Contrition is like trying on a tight, sexy dress from my 20s. I’ll never wear it again, but it’s fun to look back.” –People.com.

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