Violette Toussaint is the caretaker at a cemetery in a small town in Bourgogne. Random visitors, regulars, and, most notably, her colleagues—three gravediggers, three groundskeepers, and a priest—visit her as often as possible to warm themselves in her lodge, where laughter, companionship, and occasional tears mix with the coffee that she offers them. Her daily life is lived to the rhythms of their hilarious and touching confidences.
Violette’s routine is disrupted one day by the arrival of a man—Julien Sole, local police chief—who insists on depositing the ashes of his recently departed mother on the gravesite of a complete stranger. It soon becomes clear that the grave Julien is looking for belongs to his mother’s one-time lover, and that his mother’s story of clandestine love is intertwined with Violette’s own secret past.
With Fresh Water for Flowers, Valérie Perrin has given readers a funny, moving, intimately told story of a woman who believes obstinately in happiness. Parrin has the rare talent of illuminating what is exceptional and poetic in what seems ordinary.
Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Loved this. I read the English translation, the choice of words along with the inclusion of original language. My French is limited, I appreciated what I presumed in the interpretation. I’d recommend this to anyone. It would make a great book club read.
Grief, the human condition, deep resonance. Original, thought-provoking. Also a very therapeutic read. Reminded of questions proposed and analyzed in my university Death and Dying course. Some parts joyous, others heartbreaking, some funny notes, other themes more daunting. Each chapter titled with funerary epigraphs graciously set the tone. Struggles, perplexing matters and thoughts from satisfying life choices whether personal or relational, episodic, near death, or overall.
Loved the telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s, The Fir Tree.
Prose rich, deep, lyrical. Poetic. Every sentence was so tightly linked. Like a game of dominoes where the two numbers match up, adjacent the fives, so on and so on. Interconnected and all tangible in the same way, whether my lived experience or not, the style of writing was captivating. Word choices and scenarios were presented in such a pure, honest, personal way.
This is one to savor and will be in my thoughts for a long time to come.
MY FAVORITE LINES:
“What do you expect will become of me if I no longer hear your step, is it your life or mine that’s going, I don’t know.”
“Being is eternal, existence a passage, eternal memory will be its message.”
“You must learn to be generous with your absence to those who haven’t understood the importance of your presence.”
“People are strange. They can’t bear to look in the eye a mother who has lost her child, but they’re even more shocked to see her picking herself up, dressing herself up, dolling herself up.”
“It’s the words they didn’t say that make the dead so heavy in their coffins.”
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Reading Group Discussion Questions
1. One critic called Fresh Water for Flowers “A tender and poignant exploration of love, loss, and redemption.” How do these themes weave together in the narrative? Given the multiple characters and storylines, how do such feelings transcend the characters’ stories in the novel and reflect back on to the readers?
- The novel recounts Violette’s life over the course of many years, but not always in order. How does this inter-changing chronological structure add to the narrative? Does it take away from it? How does it further underscore the novel’s theme of life’s unpredictability and Violette’s (and, ultimately, ours) resilience?
- Violette spends most of the novel telling her story as the cemetery keeper in Brancion-en- Chalet, but the novel also recounts her life as a level crossing keeper. Discuss the differences in Violette’s life in these two places. How do both locations subvert readers’ expectations and how do they imprint themselves on Violette’s life?
- Each chapter begins with an epitaph as a preamble for what’s to come. Do you find these epitaphs informed the contents of each chapter? What role do the epitaph’s play in the story?
- By following the lives of multiple characters other thanViolette(Philippe,Gabriel,Irene,Julien, etc.), the novel opens onto the impossibilities and contradictions that make up a person. To wholly care for someone, but to be distant. To be in love, but still unfaithful. In doing so, what commentary does the novel make on how a single life can hold a multitude of lives within it? Do you feel as though each character has redeemed themselves by the end of the novel? Is Violette’s capacity for forgiveness, then, ultimately, a weakness or a strength? Is there anyone who did not fully redeem themselves by the end and, if so, do you at least understand them better?
- Chapter 75 ends with Violette wondering of Julien, “How will our encounters end?” (346). Meanwhile, Chapter 76 begins with the epitaph “The family isn’t destroyed, it changes. A part of it merely becomes invisible” (347). How do Violette’s encounters with the prominent people in her life— Phillipe, Leonine, Sasha, Celia, Julien, Irene, etc.—guide her to the end of the novel? How does her family change over the course of the novel? Is a family merely one made up of a bloodline?
- After Leonine’s death, both Philippe and Violette grieve in their own ways, all the way having to deal with the scrutiny from friends and family around them. Discuss how this novel the different ways this novel portrays grief and the avenues with which each character takes to heal. Does any character grieve in a similar way as you? If so, what did you learn from it?
- This novel portrays different kinds of love: the love friends share; your first love; the love between a mother and a daughter, and between a father and a son; the complicated loves; the loves lost; the misunderstood loves, and more. Do you find love to be enough of a driving force for redemption with some of these characters? Do you believe Violette to be incapable or unworthy of love, as she continuously claims?
- One critic calls Fresh Water for Flowers “a triumphant celebration of life and love.” Discuss the ways in which this novel reproduces the cycle of life and the ways in which it celebrates it, with all the good and the bad that come along with living? Did you learn anything along the way?