Book Review: “The Button Collector” By Elizabeth Jennings
Reviewed By Mary Ickes
In a Time-News’ interview (September 22, 2013), Ms. Jennings said, “People often ask me why I chose buttons, and the truth is that I used them as a purely literary device. I’ve always loved the concept of little bits of story coming together to create an intricate whole.” Caroline, her protagonist, little suspects that buttons will force her to face her past when she is attracted to a flea market button booth where A jar of ochre orange merged into lemon yellow, forest greens led to blues and purples – row upon row rising toward the sky, gleaming like a dragon’s hoard. As Caroline admires the gleaming beauty, her wolves (totems of familial resentments and frustrations) close in. The wolves howling by 2:00 the next morning, Caroline retrieves a different button jar, inherited from her mother four years earlier, and ponders the contents.
First, the enormous turquoise and white button from the beach cover that her mother wore during an Outer Banks’ vacation thirty years earlier. The vacationers included Caroline’s parents, Charles and Emma Tilghman; and her brother, Hank; Mitchell, Emma’s brother; Claire, Hank’s wife; and Gail, their daughter. The ocean’s placid surface, masking dangerous undertows, reflected the peaceful beach scene where Caroline’s conflict took root.
Emma, posed under a colorful beach umbrella as Gail painted her picture, tried to control the rambunctious Caroline (aged 2) while writing to her sister … It will be nice when she’s a little older and wants to play dress-up and have tea parties and bake cookies with me. I’ve been doing those things with Gail and it really is such fun. Gail (aged 8) was polite, eager to please, quiet, and well-mannered. She treasured her summer month at Emma’s house because She let Gail help with everything, even with the most elaborate projects, like making jam.
Caroline grew into a tomboy camping with her father and brother, romping with the neighbor kids, and dashing into the house with dirty shoes. She writes of Gail’s summer visits: Things always changed when Gail arrived. Mom began organizing elaborate domestic projects. One might be hosting a tea for the girls in the neighborhood . . . Or we’d stencil window boxes and plant flowers, or make homemade ice cream, or decoupage. More than ever, Caroline resented Emma’s nagging to behave like Gail, who enjoyed doing nice things. As if playing soft ball or roaming through the woods wasn’t nice. Simultaneously, she knew that Gail strived to keep peace and that she desperately needed Emma’s affection. Caroline, as a teenager, sensed her wolf pack forming,but she was too inexperienced to comprehend the implications.
Gail’s visits ended when she attended college, worked as a photojournalist, married, had three children, and, like her Aunt Emmy, devoted her energy to a beautiful home and yard. Caroline studied computer programming, married a man of a different race, lived in a cozy bungalow, and, to Emma’s distress, produced no grandchildren.
To please her mother, Caroline represses her frustrations until Emma’s preference for Gail finally throws her into a … maniacal collision of anger, jealousy, and panic … letting the wolves of rage and despair consume her. Caroline readily forgives her mother, but not Gail.
Chronologically, The Button Collector moves from 1969-1996 with Caroline’s first-person musings and the buttons’ third-person stories weaving Ms. Jennings’ intricate whole. Caroline lays the warp as she progresses and regresses in conquering her wolves: even though she and Gail have not spoken alone in three years, she begins to feels at ease with the buttons until bitterly recalling Gail the Perfect who … kept every little thing in her room as orchestrated as a museum. A few chapters later, Caroline misses her cousin – until she flashes back to the day that Gail became her adversary.
Family background weaves a complex weft across Caroline’s warp. Emma contrasts with the elegant Claire; Maggie Sommers, Caroline’s great-grandmother, disdaining pink and white to weave a baby blanket of gold and blue; and Ida Wilson, The Crazy Quilt Lady, inspired by an ethereal source that few take seriously until they see quilts for which the Smithsonian offered her $10,000. Charles, when left to care for his home and children, soon tires of … trying to keep their world together while Emma was gone, and Emma resents that Charles never seemed to recognize that there actually were times when it was appropriate to worry. Hank, Caroline’s nemesis, glories in the esteem for career successes that Caroline craves. Gail’s chapters reveal the wolves still hounding her after a childhood tragedy.
The only deviation from the otherwise tightly woven plot is the chapter entitled “Truth or Dare.” Caroline’s crucial insights about Gail would have been better presented in her reflections than at a New Year’s Eve drinking scene with a woman lacking compassion and conscience.
That The Button Collector does not conclude in a neatly-bound intricate whole is due not to Ms. Jennings’ perceptive insights into each character’s strengths and foibles, but her topic. A family, actual or fictional, without a few fringes flapping in life’s breezes would hardly be credible. Caroline’s family is no exception.
Elizabeth Jennings has worked as a features writer, copywriter, tutor, and adjunct instructor, but deep inside she is a reader on the hunt for the next great story. Her fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, including Prime Number Magazine, Apalachee Review, and the children’s magazine Ladybug. Her non-fiction has won several awards, including first place for special articles/health in the 2006 North Carolina Press Club Communications Contest. A native of Clemson, South Carolina, she earned degrees in English from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and The University of Delaware. She lives with her family within view of Mount Pisgah in the ancient and lush Blue Ridge Mountains. Website: ElizabethJennings.com.
The Button Collector is available online at most major book outlets, and locally at The Fountainhead, Malaprop’s and The Button Florist studio in the River Arts District.
View From My Catio
Buddy, T.C.P.E. (Tuxedo Cats Par Excellence)
As promised last month, an introduction to Tabitha, our newly-appointed library cat. She lived in a barn with Tiger, another tabby, who chased and attacked her. The last straw for Mary was Tiger ambushing Tabitha when she entered the barn for meals. When he didn’t reform after a few intense conversations, Mary volunteered to give her a good home. For an eleven-year-old outdoor cat, she took to safety, warmth, and food like a trooper. But the kicker is that Tabitha absolutely adores Roy and snuggles up when he sits on the sofa. When Mary’s on the sofa, Tabitha pointedly jumps down and walks away.