I have re-read this book probably more often than any other book in my adult life. The story unfolds in rural Missouri over the first two-thirds of the 20th century, but its themes and its allure are timeless: family, faith, rebellion, secrets, love, independence, and time. Matthew and Callie Soames raise four daughters: Jessica, Leonie, Mary Jo, and Mathy. The book tells their stories one lifetime at a time, starting with the oldest daughter, Jessica, who introduces us to her parents and siblings and their life growing up in the Ozarks. Then we meet Matthew, the father, whose inner life and story -- and whose foolish heart -- are a far cry from the stern schoolmaster who rules his home and his daughters' lives with an austere and lonely love. ("To his daughters as they grew up, Matthew Soames was God and the weather." His character has often reminded me of the father in Robert Hayden's poem "Those Winter Sundays.") Mathy, the youngest daughter, is the family's most vivid and most tragic character, a free spirit who flies a little too close to the sun. Leonie is her father's daughter, but also a child of her era, and through her Matthew is ultimately reconciled to Mathy.
But each lifetime is only a piece in the puzzle of the Soames family until Callie, the strong, understated matriarch, who keeps the hardest secret of all; not until her story is told do all the others finally come together into a whole portrait, even though each story before hers seemed whole enough on its own. The book's title comes from the flowers that bloom for one night a year in the Ozarks, when the family reunites to watch them bloom for such a short season. The last chapter of Callie's story, when she suddenly finds herself an old woman and the reader suddenly discovers that half a century has passed with the Soameses, is one of the most penetrating insights into aging that I have ever read.
"The Moonflower Vine" contains as many tragedies as a family could normally expect in half a century, but not too many, and overall it is an affirming and empowering novel. But its saddest fact doesn't appear in the novel at all -- that Jetta Carleton, whose literary debut is a masterpiece, never wrote another book. "The Moonflower Vine" was an overnight sensation when it was published in 1962 -- a Literary Guild selection, and a Reader's Digest Condensed Book in 1963. But four decades later, Jetta Carleton and her book are nearly forgotten. Jetta Carleton Lyon lived a full and happy life, moving in 1970 to New Mexico, where she ran a small publishing company until her death in 1999. "The Moonflower Vine" was reprinted by Bantam in 1984, and by Buccaneer in 1995.
My grandmother collected Reader's Digest Condensed Books, and I discovered "The Moonflower Vine" as a child at her home years later (in the same volume with "The Shoes of the Fisherman" by Morris West). Soon afterward, I had to read the whole novel. A quarter century has passed, and I still can't pick it up without reading it again. And I never put it down without a catch in my throat.