Every bouquet tells a story. And every story begins at Blossom & Grow, a tiny flower shop in the heart of Dublin...
Among the buckets of fragrant blooms, beneath the flickering candles and lanterns, Lara works her magic, translating feelings into flower arrangements that change hearts and lives.
She is no stranger to the power of flowers herself. They gave her hope when she was a child who lost a mother, and, again when she was a mother who lost a child.
But old wounds take time to heal, and life has more heartbreak in store. What will it take for the woman who can unlock everybody else’s emotions to open up her own heart?
READERS GUIDE INSIDE
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Dublin was deserted at 7 a.m. on Saturday except for a pair of die-hard Friday-night clubbers kissing in the doorway of the antiques shop at the corner of Pleasant Street. Three purposeful seagulls flew along the curving line of Camden Street, then took a sharp right along Montague Lane. Gray clouds were banked above the rooftops but the heavy rain had thinned out to a fine drizzle, and a slant of weak sunshine cut through the gloom and lit a shining path along the drenched pavement ahead of Lara. She stepped into it, luxuriating in the faint prickle of heat on the back of her neck.
This was her favorite time of the year. The madness of Valentine's Day over. Mother's Day still a month away. The wedding season a dot on the horizon. Spring blooms had been coming in from Holland since December, but now flowers from Irish growers were arriving. Daffodils with their frilled trumpets and tissue-paper-delicate anemones and the first tulips with sturdy stems and glossy, tightly packed petals.
She made her way past the shuttered shops and the boarded-up stalls, heading for a tall, slim slice of pale pink in the line of red and gray brick facades. Phil, her younger brother, had painted the exterior of Blossom & Grow. The slapdash blobs and trickles he had left in the paint were, she thought, rummaging for her keys, part of the charm, like the swags of realistic-looking painted ivy that seemed to trail up the outside of the three-story building, curling around the drainpipe and the windowsills. Lara had painted the ivy herself. She had always loved ivy for its tenacity and determination, for the way it pushed through tiny cracks and crevices to reach the light.
She had spent weeks making sketches, teaching herself trompe l'oeil techniques, and then conquered her fear of heights to balance on a ladder with her paintbrushes and palette. No two leaves were the same. Even now, five years later, looking up, she felt as if she knew every single one.
She shifted the armful of damp greenery she'd cut from her garden and unlocked the door. The Chubb lock stuck the way it always did. The Yale turned with a soft click and the six Thai temple bells that hung above the door rang out a soft jingle of welcome.
The wildflower man had already been here, she saw. He had his own key and would have driven up from Wicklow before it got light. He had left a huge bucket of narcissi beside the door. The tiny white flowers had been picked before dawn and they glowed as if they had been drenched in moonlight. A second, smaller bucket was packed with bluebells and Lara could smell some hyacinths in there too. She bent down and felt around for the little waxy blossoms, and their fragrance rose up to meet her. If perfumes were the feelings of flowers, as her mother used to say, then the hyacinths were as happy to see her as she was to see them.
"You want to open a flower shop?" Her husband's jaw had dropped when she had told him, five years ago. His voice, usually so calm and quiet, had been sharp with anxiety. They had always come to decisions together, careful of one another's needs, but the truth was that deep down they had both wanted the same thing. Then they had lost their baby and instead of turning toward one another they'd turned away.
Lara, who didn't have the energy to shower, who could not find a single reason to get dressed, stayed in bed for weeks. Michael could not sit still. He spent whole days out in the garden bent over his spade, digging beds that didn't need digging, reseeding the lawn, replanting the Chinese camellias he had moved the winter before.
He held Lara when she cried. He reached a hand out to squeeze hers when she lay awake, her knuckles pushed into her mouth to choke back her grief. He told her the pain wouldn't go on forever, that life would return to the way it had been. But everything had changed, and Lara knew that the only way she could get through it was to change everything.
"Lara, listen to me," Michael said. "Floristry is not about floating around arranging flowers. You have no idea what you'd be getting into."
"I can learn." She'd hoped he'd be happy for her.
"You don't understand. It's backbreaking work. You'll be on your feet all day, every day, sweeping, cleaning, hauling water around. That's not what you need, not after what you've been through. You need to think about this carefully."
"All I've been doing is thinking and it's killing me. I thought it would get better when I went back to work, but it hasn't."
Michael ran his calloused thumb over her palm, following the lines that trailed across it. The head line, the heart line, the health line, the life line.
"Throwing away a career you love is not the answer. Give yourself time. Stay at Green Sea for a few months; then, if you still need a change, set up a design studio at home. Go freelance."
She shook her head. "I can't. I've made up my mind about the shop." She hadn't quite, but she did in that moment.
"Well, you don't need my opinion then." He let her hand drop. "But for what it's worth, I think it's a mistake. Retail is tough, and a luxury business in a recession, with unreliable suppliers, difficult customers, perishable stock . . . I just hope you're not going to regret it."
Michael had been trying to protect her, she knew that. He knew what he was talking about. He had run his own landscaping business for eight years. She did trust him, but in some stubborn place deep in her heart, she trusted herself more.
He had been right about some things. It had taken Lara two years to find flower sellers she could trust, and second-guessing how much stock she'd need a week in advance was still a leap of faith. Flowers were expensive and they had a short shelf life. After five years, she had developed better instincts about ordering but there were disasters along the way. The first Mother's Day she had run out of flowers with half the orders in the book unfilled. Three years ago it snowed for two weeks before Christmas and she had to throw away over a thousand euros' worth of stock. The work was, as Michael had said, backbreaking.
There were late nights, and early starts for weddings, sixteen-hour days in the run-up to Christmas and Valentine's Day. The shop had to be kept cool because the flowers liked it that way, and no matter how many layers she wore, Lara was always cold. Her hands were ruined. Standing all day made her bones ache, and there was a pale blue hashtag in the soft hollow of skin behind her left knee that she thought might be the beginnings of varicose veins.
But Michael had been wrong about the customers. They weren't difficult at all; they were a joy. Lara had known since she was a child that flowers were a language, but what she hadn't realized was that she was a natural translator. That she could help another person to find the flowers that expressed the feelings their words were too flimsy or too worn out to hold. "I love you" or "I'm sorry" or "I'm happy" or "I'm grateful" or "I'll never forget you."
She straightened up and looked around. She loved this small shop, and in a way that she could not explain, it seemed to love her in return. Phil had helped her to strip the walls back to bare brick and to paint the floorboards French gray. They had found the wooden counter in a salvage yard. It had dozens of cubbyholes and drawers for wraps and wire and scissors and ribbon.
The walls behind the counter had deep floor-to-ceiling shelves for vases and jam jars and scented candles, and there was an old wrought-iron revolving stand for cards. But most of the space in the long, narrow shop was taken up with flowers and plants.
Today there were fifty-two kinds of cut blooms, from the tiny cobalt-blue violets that were smaller than Lara's little fingernail to a purple-and-green-frilled brassica that was bigger than her head.
The flowers were set out in gleaming metal buckets and containers of every shape and size. They were lined up on the floor three deep and stacked on the tall three-tier stand in the middle of the shop.
The plants, huge leafy ferns and tiny fleshy succulents, lemon trees and jasmine bushes and freckled orchids, were displayed on floating shelves that were built at various heights all the way up to the ceiling.
Lara had spent weeks getting the lighting right. There were a few soft spotlights above the flower displays, and an antique crystal chandelier hung low above the counter. There were strings of fairy lights and dozens of jewel-colored tea lights and tall, slender lanterns dotted between the buckets. When they were lit, they cast star and crescent moon shapes along the walls and the shop resembled the courtyard of a Moroccan riad-a tiny walled garden right in the middle of the city.
She put her bag and her greenery down on the counter, lit the candles and switched on the fairy lights. Then she took off her coat, pulled her old gray cashmere cardigan off a hook and put it on over the two long-sleeved T-shirts she was already wearing. She went out into the cluttered galley kitchen and filled the kettle. While the water boiled, she rolled forward slowly, loosening up her spine, one vertebra at a time. Her long hair fanned out around her on the worn wooden floorboards. Through a gap in the dark curtain her hair created she spotted a little drift of leaves and petals by the skirting board. No matter how often she cleaned, there was always more to sweep.
She swung her head from side to side to stretch her neck. Then she stood up and spooned loose-leaf peppermint tea into her flask and filled it with boiling water, inhaling the cloud of warm steam.
Opening Blossom & Grow had not been a mistake. No matter how tough it had been, she had only one regret. That she hadn't been able to persuade her husband that it was the right thing to do.
Even now, he didn't seem to understand that the shop had been her lifeline. It had carried her away from the empty space in her own heart and into the lives of thousands of strangers.
When she worked as a graphic designer, the only display of feeling she had seen was when a client who owned a pizza franchise had a meltdown because Lara refused to copy the British Airways corporate identity when designing his logo. Now she was surrounded by feelings every day-joy, sorrow, gratitude, regret, lust, hope. And the one feeling that seemed to underpin them all-love.
She carried her flask and her favorite mug out to the counter, flipped open the fat leather-bound order book and fired up her laptop. She turned on the radio and a Bach cello concerto poured out of the small speakers, the simple, fluid notes weaving around the sounds of the sleepy city waking up outside her window. The rattle of the shutter going up on the betting shop next door. The distant rumble of a Luas train pulling into Harcourt station. The hammering, drilling and whistling from the building site a few doors away. The shouts and laughter from a group of Italian students gathering on the steps of the language school across the street.
A withered petal from the kitchen floor was caught in Lara's hair. She picked it out. It still held its heart shape and an echo of fragrance. She tucked it between the pages of the order book. It was only March but the book was already satisfyingly fat both from daily use and occasional, accidental dousings. The pages were densely covered in a jumble of her assistant Ciara's loopy scrawl and doodles and Lara's copperplate handwriting. Lists of flowers that had been ordered to check off against deliveries. Reminders of the chores that had to be done daily and weekly. Special requests from customers. Bookings that came in on the phone.
Today there were regular orders from two restaurants and a hotel, a dozen small table centerpieces to make up for a charity dinner, and bouquets for the maternity hospital on Holles Street, a house in Kilmacud and an eighteenth birthday party in a tapas bar in Donnybrook. Lara read the message that Ciara had scribbled on a Post-it and stuck crookedly to the page:
It seems like only yesterday that we brought you home, 6 pounds 3 ounces of joy wrapped up in a pink blanket. We felt like the luckiest people alive that day and every day since. Happy 18th birthday to our lovely and amazing daughter Ailish.
Mum and Dad
A thirty-euro bouquet. Lara picked up a pen to start planning it, then gathered up her long dark hair and used the pen instead to fasten a bun at the back of her neck. She rested her chin on her hand. She tried to imagine an eighteen-year-old's cluttered bedroom. The blinds still drawn. A tumble of hair on a pillow. A girl still fast asleep on the day she would take the last few steps across the bridge from childhood to adulthood. She might be given dozens of flowers in her life, Lara guessed, but these might be the very first. And she would remember them twenty, forty, sixty years from now-long after her parents had gone. They would have to be perfect.
By eight thirty, Lara had changed the water in every bucket and checked over all her stock, carefully picking out any blooms that wouldnÕt last for the next seven days. She had trimmed the rejects and popped them into a vase on the counter with a chalkboard sign that said ÒPlease take one home.Ó She had turned the wildflowers into a dozen ten-euro spring bouquets wrapped simply in brown paper for men who might feel shy about carrying a larger bunch of flowers. She had sterilized the jam jars for the table centerpieces, made up a rainbow of tissue paper and cellophane wraps, soaked twenty blocks of Oasis and fed the orchids. Ciara had gone away for a romantic weekend with her husband, Mort, so Lara would be in the shop on her own today. It was a good idea to get a head start.
Reading Group Guide
The Flower Arrangement
1. Flowers are part of every significant moment in our lives. Of every birth and wedding. Every joyful celebration and heartbreaking funeral. They can shout out our happiness or speak our sympathy softly. Seduce a lover or comfort a friend. Express feelings we cannot put into words. Why do you think that is?
2. Every story begins with a flower or plant. Ivy for tenacity. Daffodil for new beginnings. Pansy for remembrance. Did the flower meanings add to the stories for you?
3. Lara lost her mother when she was a child and then loses the baby she longed for. How do you think her losses shaped her as a character?
4. Lara is intuitive about flowers and people. She seems to understand exactly what every customer needs. Why then is she so blind to her own needs? Do you get the sense that she is using her work to hide from the sadness of her life?
5. Discuss Michael. Why do you think he married Lara? Do you think he ever really loved her? Was it selfish or selfless of him to try to make the marriage work?
6. The book deals with loss and grief. Did you feel that the author was writing from her own experience? Did any of the stories bring up a loss you have suffered in your life?
7. Lara’s family, friends and customers all play a part in the book. They are a mixed bunch. What do you think of the way their stories are interwoven?
8. Were you surprised that the woman who was visiting Ted was his wife, Margaret? Do you think she was real? Or a hallucination caused by the morphine he was taking?
9. Katy is ready to start a family with Ben even though she realizes that they are more like flatmates than soul mates. Why do you think she has stayed so long in the relationship when he seems so unwilling to take it to the next level?
10. Mia has a very clear idea of the kind of man she is looking for, but she ends up falling for his complete opposite. Do you think that’s true to life? Do we really have a choice about the people we fall in love with?
11. Lara struggles with the fact that she is ten years older than Ben. Do you think it would worry her if the age gap was the other way around? Why do we still have a problem with older women dating younger men?
12. Lara’s story isn’t tied up in a neat bow at the end. We are left with unanswered questions and unresolved situations. What do you think happens after Lara goes back to Dublin? Do you think that she and Ben will get back together?
13. Lara expresses her customers’ feelings through flowers. If you were to make a bouquet that expressed who you are, what flowers would you include?