This was the third Hazel Gaynor book I have read in the last year, after The Girl From the Savoy and The Girl Who Came Home and it was by far the best one yet! In the last few years I have been reading a lot more contemporary fiction than historical fiction, even though historical fiction used to be my all-time favorite genre. However, I think that is going to change because I’m liking Gaynor’s books more, and they have been leading to other new (to me) historical fiction writers as well.
A Memory of Violets begins in London 1876 with Flora and Rosie Flynn, orphaned sisters of Irish descent who lead a destitute life selling flowers in London, struggling to make enough money to eat. Rosie is partially blind and Flora, known as Florrie, is her guidepost and acts as a mother to her. She is devoted to Rosie, and to keeping a close watch over her, just as she promised her mother she would right before she passed away. One day they become separated, and Florrie is committed to finding Rosie no matter how much time passes.
The book switches back and forth between Florrie’s story in 1876 and that of Tilly Harper in 1912 which serves as the “present.” Tilly has just arrived at the Training Home for Watercress and Flower Girls to be a new housemother. The training home is where blind and crippled young girls live and work, making stunning life-like flowers by hand which they sell. The entire organization was created by Mr. Albert Shaw who saw how many young girls were selling flowers on the streets of London, and wanted to do something to help. Tilly is thrilled to be there not just because she is so in awe of the good work Mr. Shaw has done for the girls but because she is eager to escape her troubled home life.
Through alternating perspectives we learn how Florrie met Mr. Shaw right after losing Rosie, and that he graciously brought her to the orphanage in Clacton. She ended up working in the flower home for her entire life, and was always on the lookout for Rosie, hopeful that she would come back to her. We also learn more about Tilly’s past through her nightmares; about her father who was a soldier, and the complicated relationship she has with her mother and little sister, Esther.
This story was so compelling and I finished the book quicker than I expected. There was so much more at play than I realized, and as the story progressed it became even more intriguing. Some parts of the book are predictable at first but I guarantee whatever you think will happen won’t.
The fact that it was based on the true stories of some of the girls who stayed at the flower homes in London (Mr. Shaw was based on John Groom) made it all the more heart-wrenching. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who loves historical fiction. You can read a little about the flower homes here, and here, and that may pique your interest a little more before you being reading the book.
I’m looking forward to reading more of Hazel Gaynor’s books next year. Any other historical fiction books or authors I should be reading?