Gail Godwin’s Flora is a quiet book. There’s no climactic plot line, no gut-wrenching relationships, nor any other real dramatic element. However, this is a book filled with tension simmering to the brim, told eloquently by our precocious 10-year-old narrator, Helen.
Helen is going through one of the rougher patches of her short life—her grandmother and main caregiver Nonie has just passed away and her dad is spending the summer in Oak Ridge doing important war work as WWII draws to a close. While he’s gone, he’s left Helen in the charge of her long-deceased mother’s cousin, Flora. And the personality differences between these two could not be greater.
Describing Helen simply as “precocious” is not nearly descriptive enough. She’s incredibly smart but also intuitive and confident and possesses a haughty attitude more typical of a smart-aleck 16-year-old than of someone her age. She’s mirrored Nonie’s perspectives and attitudes and experiences the world with a more mature level of cynicism, as if she already knows how it all works; she’s realistic and reads people for (what she believes) they are rather than how they appear. Flora, on the other hand, is bubbly and outgoing, but her personality is usually just a mask for her lack of self-confidence. She’s constantly questioning her own thoughts and actions and desperately needs someone to guide her through young adulthood. Channeling a Nonie-level of knowledge and life experience, Helen immediately considers herself superior to the anxious and inexperienced Flora.
With our two conflicting protagonists isolated in Helen’s crumbling old house, Flora explores these clashes of personality between two characters who are each at a poignant moment in their adolescent development and who each desperately need the guidance that Nonie once provided.
I describe this as a “quiet” book, because in this long and uneventful summer is where the meat of the story lies; as the reader, we are constantly assessing and re-assessing the interactions between Helen and Flora with consideration to each’s perspective. Helen is remarkably astute for her age, but we as the reader are able to see that the world according to Helen is still skewed with an immature misunderstanding. These are brilliantly crafted characters that allow a lot to be read between the lines. It doesn’t feel particularly complex as you read, but the story has depth; these characters—their differences, their misunderstandings, their flaws—will stick with you.