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The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton
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The Moonflower Vine (1962)

by Jetta Carleton (Author)

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Showing 23 of 23
I read a lot of books, both old and new, some are good, some not so good, but this one, Jetta Carleton's THE MOONFLOWER VINE (first published in 1962), is simply one of the best damn Stories I've read in a long time. And I capitalized Story purposely, because Carleton could flat out tell a STORY that made you care about her real-as-life characters that kept you rooting for them and turning the pages to find out what happens to them next. The Soames family is one you'll be thinking about for a long time once you close the covers of this book. There's Matthew, a dirt poor west Missouri farmer who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps (I've always liked that old expression, which certainly fits here) and his unusual love of learning to become a teacher (as well as a school superintendent eventually). But he also hangs onto his farming roots, moving from town back to the farm every summer. His wife, Callie, nearly illiterate, seems an unlikely match for Matthew, but she loves him with a fierceness and loyalty that is a mix of pleasure and pain, and in spite of her knowledge of his various annual infatuations with pretty female students. Part of her forbearance is because she harbors a dark and painful secret of her own. They have four daughters: Jessica, Leonie, Mathy, and Mary Jo - every one of them very different individuals. In a story that begins at the end of the 19th century and covers more than fifty years, Carleton lays bare all the longings, frustrations, heartreaks and painful history of the Soames family as the daughters grow up, marry and begin lives of their own, and Matthew and Callie grow old together, finally finding a kind of peace in their shared sorrows and long history together.

Carleton's tale of the Soameses reminded me of various other books - James Drought's THE GYPSY MOTHS, John Williams's STONER, and maybe a little bit of Grace Metallious's PEYTON PLACE. Or perhaps the film, MR. HOLLAND'S OPUS. The truth is THE MOONFLOWER VINE is a one of a kind book. And in fact it was the only published work of Jetta Carleton, who died in 1999. Maybe that's why it has been compared to TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD. To my mind, this was not really an apt comparison, as Matthew Soames seemed a much more fallible and human hero that the redoubtable Atticus Finch. Nope, with the Soameses Carleton has created some of the most memorable and unique fictional characters of the twentieth century. THE MOONFLOWER VINE is a book that deserves its present resurgence and more: attention from generations of readers to come. Very highly recommended. ( )
  TimBazzett | Mar 31, 2014 |
Loved it. ( )
  karrinina | Nov 13, 2013 |
A small-town Missouri family reunites and remembers the events that tie them together. A story beautifully told through the perspective of each family member. ( )
1 vote poetreegirl | Nov 6, 2013 |
I must agree with everything that all the other reviewers have said and then some. This is quite simply an excellent book: well written, honest, historically and culturally accurate, and filled with characters that are as real as any I have ever read in fiction. I actually grew up in the area of this story (Cole Camp is even mentioned -- a tiny town of 1000). Even thought it was "before my time", I know these people and what makes them so painfully honest yet so painfully secretive.

This book is on par with Gilead: A Novelby M Robinson who won the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead. I loved that, but I believe that the author of Moonflower Vine was equally deserving (although this book was first published years ago.) As some others noted, I remember this as a Readers Digest condensed book; now I can't imagine condensing even one page of this excellent story.

If you love simple people who live complicated lives, you will embrace this book. It is one that stays with you long after you have finished the final page -- and what a final chapter! Highly recommended. ( )
  maryreinert | Aug 17, 2013 |
The Moonflower Vine is considered lost classic by an author who was considered to be a one-book author until a second manuscript was discovered just a few years ago. It concerns the Soames family, living in rural Missouri in the early 20th century. Patriarch Matthew is a high school teacher and farmer. His wife Callie is illiterate, and her main desire in life is to be a loyal housewife and good mother. Their daughters rebel in various ways and encounter heartbreak and tragedy. The whole novel revolves around the farm and the nuclear family - we hear tell of the daughters' more successful and more cosmopolitan adult lives, but they are not as real as the farm with no plumbing and the broody hens and cows. It is a more complex book than meets the eye; the characters are well -drawn. With all these daughters, it's really not a "woman's novel." Matthew is perhaps the most fully realized and interesting character. The book started slowly, and I'm a little skeptical of the "lost classic" designation, but I enjoyed the book and I'm glad I stuck it out. ( )
1 vote CasualFriday | Mar 11, 2013 |
The story of a family in rural Missouri unfolds from the point of view of each member. Lovely descriptions of farm life, and some spicy secrets too. A good book for when you're in the mood for a leisurely read. ( )
  Milda-TX | Dec 28, 2011 |
The story is of a family living in the rural south in the early 20th century. The father is a small town school teacher and he and his wife also work a small farm. They have four daughters. The first part of the novel describes a summer when three of the girls, adults now and living a distance away, come home for two weeks. It is a sweet story of a close family, not without tensions, but basically a happy story. In the rest of the novel, she devotes a chapter to each of them, peeling away a layer and looking at key moments in their lives. Needless to say, it adds great dimension to the story, some real surprises, and is a very effective way to look at the characters. The writing is first rate. ( )
  Oregonreader | Apr 20, 2011 |
I became interested in this book after reading that it was a favorite of Jane Smiley. First published in 1962 and written at a leisurely pace, one wonders what is so compelling that you have to keep reading, but you do. It is the story of the Soames family and each parent and the sisters relate their "truth" of growing up and the family life. Just as you are lulled into the complacency of the slow life in Missouri, there is a twist to the story with a surprise at the end of the novel. My only wish would be to know more of the adult life of the sisters but that is just because you have gotten to know them and you want to learn more. ( )
  bacreads | Apr 4, 2011 |
i just really wasn't in the mood for this book when i read it and the first section i thought was irrelevant! my bookclub loved the book though and the writing is very good! ( )
  amanaceerdh | Aug 13, 2010 |
Not sure if I liked this book or not. I found myself struggling through some of it, but didn't want to give up on it. It was interesting from the view point of being set in the Ozarks, where I grew up. Although I liked some of the characters, I found the writing especially of the descriptions to be very "old-fashioned". ( )
  busyreadin | Mar 20, 2010 |
I really loved this book. I was thinking that I wished I had known about it before now, but I love the sense that there are wonderful stories waiting somewhere for us to find them...

The Moonflower Vine is about a family moving between two worlds - essentially the world of their father and the world of their mother. Although both parents inhabit either world competently, clearly the father is more comfortable in town with his school and the mother with the farm and her children. The story is about love, family, loss, and is told through the everyday activities of an every day family.

I love the circular way the story moves. It begins and ends in the same time period, but in between we get to have each family members own story. It feels right to have it end back where it began.

Perhaps shocking for its time, the story deals with sexuality very openly. Beginning with Jessica falling in love with the hired boy to Matthew's obsession with his female students, Mathy, then Leonie falling in love with Ed, and then Callie's shocker at the end, each family member (except Mary Jo) faced moral dilemmas regarding appropriate behavior. I was a little surprised by Callie's story. For some reason it didn't fit with the picture I had of her. Anyway, in spite of all this, the fact that each character considered morals a part of their decisions to some extent made them interesting and likable. I had the sense that everyone was doing the best they could, and I like that. ( )
3 vote nittnut | Mar 6, 2010 |
The moonflower vine, like much of life, is a thing of fleeting beauty, releasing its bloom and fragrance for a limited time to those who patiently wait for the things that matter. This exquisite portrait of a Missouri farm family also reveals its worth and beauty slowly. It may take place in a different time (a span of 50 years in the early part of the 20th Century), but values and family dynamics haven't changed all that much since then.

It was a simpler time, but the lives of Matthew and Callie Soames and their four daughters were anything but simple. The tragedies and triumphs unfold slowly as each of the character's stories are told. Jetta Carleton quietly nurtures a surprisingly complex story with her gentle, flowing prose. I didn't even realize there was a mystery to be solved until its disclosure in the final chapter.

There's an undercurrent of sin and repentance in The Moonstone Vine, but it isn't heavy-handed fire and brimstone. Despite the morality theme and scripture references, the book doesn't preach to the reader. It is all about the strength of family ties and a willingness to forgive, along with the realization that sometimes it is best to let sleeping sorrows and secrets lie and just get on with the goodness of life. ( )
15 vote Donna828 | Feb 2, 2010 |
Though I'd never heard of this "timeless American classic" before, thanks to the Missouri Readers group, I picked it up and read it. I'm glad I did as it deserves every bit of praise, and more.

I tend to prefer plot-driven books with fairly well-drawn characters secondary so, during the first part of the book, I wasn't very happy. The book about a family on a western Missouri farm during the first half of the 20th century is told at a slow pace. I griped that there was no plot but suddenly realized that there was plot and I just hadn't realized it.

The characters--a farmer/schoolteacher and his wife and their daughters--are extremely well drawn. Each section is told from the point of view of one of the characters but the events often don't overlap. The whole family seems quite ordinary but, like any family, there are secrets and there's more going on than appears on the surface.

This is a haunting, unforgettable book and it's likely to be one of my favorite fictional works of the year. It is an American masterpiece from a "one-hit wonder" author. ( )
4 vote lindapanzo | Jan 31, 2010 |
A look at the lives of a farm family in western Missouri during the first half of the 20th century. By turns, each family member comes under the microscope and their thoughts and feelings and goals and dreams are exposed to us. Mistakes, flaws, shortcomings are all revealed, but we still accept and love them - as families do. Much pain, much joy - as families have.

Beautifully written - these characters come to life. The times and places they lived in are also vivid. No real plot here, just the rambling story of the life of a family told from different perspectives - sometimes overlapping, sometimes not. Quiet, soothing, but sometimes gets too close for comfort. Very nice. ( )
2 vote sjmccreary | Jan 29, 2010 |
In the first section of this novel, we meet Matthew and Callie Soames as they welcome their three grown daughters back to their western Missouri farm for a visit. This snapshot of their lives is rich with details. With only a few lines, Carleton brings each character to life. But we are also left with questions about the events that brought the family to this point. These details are gradually filled in as Carleton focuses on each family member in a section that describes their life and their loves. Not until the last chapter do we understand the complex events that have made up the lives of the Soames family.

From the very beginning Carleton writes with an attention to detail that makes the scene come to life. I could practically feel the summer heat on the front porch of the Soames house. A telephone on a party line rings with two shorts and a long. (Our ring was two longs and a short when I was a kid.) A farmer greets a friend by saying, "Christamighty, Walt. What'd you let it get so hot for?" (I know at least a dozen people from my small home town who I can picture delivering that line.) The story feels authentic - perhaps unsurprisingly given that this is the only book that Carleton wrote and is likely highly autobiographical.

I also loved the care with which each member of the Soames family is brought to life on the page. Carleton focuses on their romantic relationships and shows us just how much we can learn about people by watching them fall in (and sometimes out of) love. Each section could stand alone as a rich character study. But together, they are more than the sum of their parts - just as the Soames family is more than six individuals. The decisions of each one impacts all of the others, but together they also share the small joys of life, watching with wonder as the blooms appear on the moonflower vine.

I recommend this book highly. It will almost certainly be on my list of favorites for the year. ( )
6 vote porch_reader | Jan 22, 2010 |
Matthew and Callie Soames' three daughters are home for their annual two weeks at the farm, and it's the last few days of their visit. They have their time all planned out, but as usual, other things come up. The first part of the book, narrated by daughter Mary Jo, is just about those two ordinary days.

Then the book splits off into characters, and each of the remaining sections is a story of the other members of the family. It sounds ordinary, but, as we would find if we looked back on our own lives, nothing about life is ordinary. When the book ended, I was compelled to go back and read the first section again.

All I could think of when I read this book was my grandparents (long-deceased). I have multiple memories of them, but my memories are from the "autumn" of their lives. I think that we forget that they were young once. I keep wondering what secrets they had. Periodically, one of my parents will mention an incident from their childhood, and it startles me to connect it to my grandparents.

I know this review sounds more like my own memoir, but that's my point. This is a wonderfully written, ordinary story about ordinary people, and the small occurrences in their lives that affect everything. ( )
3 vote tloeffler | Jan 22, 2010 |
After reading this book, I found myself subconciously searching the bookshelves in my local library for a similiar reading experience, in vain. Perhaps, a sad testament to the smallness of my rural library, or the unique charm of this book. It's a rediscovered classic and rightly so. ( )
  abitbookish | Nov 12, 2009 |
A 'rediscovered classic", this was actually quite a lovely surprise, originally published in 1962 and neglected soon after. It was the only book written by Carleton, who eventually ran a small publishing house in New Mexico with her husband until her death in 1999. This is the story of the Soames family, Matthew and Callie and their four daughters. Matthew runs a farm and is a school headmaster, torn by his desire to be a pillar of the community, and his earthly desires. This is a novel that centers around romantic love and family, and how these often conflicting elements drive the different family members. The characters are real and believable, their stories are rich and surprisingly intertwined, with an ending that adds depth and complexity to a book that I was already enthralled with. The book has been compared with "To Kill a Mockingbird", and that is over-reaching a bit. But this is a fine novel about the joys and struggles of a family in so-called "simpler" times (the first half of the 20th century), and I would compare it with some of my other favorites in this genre such as "Jim the Boy", "The Human Comedy", "The Well and the Mine", and "The Lions Fed the Tigers". High praise. ( )
  burnit99 | Sep 3, 2009 |
This "rediscovered" novel weaves the story of a family in Missouri in the mid-twentieth century. It's divided into sections by family member names. It's a story that I thought I would enjoy more than I did. It was well-written, but I really prefer books that don't rely on conversation to tell the story and this one had quite a bit of that. I know that is just my own personal preference and that many others enjoy that type of novel. I really did not identify with any member of the family, making it difficult for me to get very involved in it. I was quite surprised by the revelations in the final chapter of the book.
1 vote thornton37814 | Aug 16, 2009 |
The cover of my Harper Perennial edition calls this book "a rediscovered classic." After reading it, I have a hard time understanding why it became obscure enough to require rediscovery. It is an outstanding work of 20th-century American literature and it deserves a wide readership.

Each section of the novel could stand alone as a short story or novella. Yet each section is also inextricably connected to the others. The author forms the shape in the opening section, as youngest daughter Mary Jo introduces the reader to her parents and her older sisters near the end of the girls' annual summer visit at their parents' Missouri farm. The author continues to add color and texture in subsequent sections as, one by one, a third person narrator tells the story of each individual in the family (except for Mary Jo, who was much younger than her sisters). All of the individual stories are necessary for a complete family portrait -- respected school superintendent and aloof father Matthew, practical farm wife Callie, oldest daughter Jessica, good girl Leonie, and rambunctious Mathy. The novel illustrates what it means to belong to a family, and how each person's choices affect, not just him or herself, but also the family unit and each individual family member.

Highly recommended, especially as a model for aspiring writers. ( )
2 vote cbl_tn | May 27, 2009 |
'Of the hundred upon hundreds of novels I've edited, this is literally the only one I've re-read several times since its publication. And every time I've read it, I've been moved by it again - by the people, by their lives; by the truth and clarity and generosity of the writing and feeling.' - Robert Gottlieb, Editor-in-Chief, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
This book is back in print March 2009.
A very good and engaging read; It is highly recommended.
1 vote Langdon66 | Mar 21, 2009 |
A novel that is long out of print, but I recommend it to everyone. Set in early 20th century rural Missouri, the story of Matthew and Callie and their daughters. Each section is told from a diffrent character's POV, and each reveals something more of the characters and their secrets. A truly wonderful story, complex and evocative.
1 vote rosinalippi | Dec 22, 2005 |
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