Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Winter Bloom includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Tara Heavey. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In Irish author Tara Heavey’s first novel to be published in the United States, Eva, a widowed young mother, finds love, friendship, and a sense of family when she starts a community garden in the walled-up plot of a mysterious Dublin mansion. Reluctant at first to open her
home to strangers, lonely old Mrs. Prendergrast eventually warms up to the idea of allowing Eva and a crew of similarly world-weary volunteers to rake, hoe, and sow her decaying garden and help bring it back to life. There’s Uri, an older Jewish man with a complicated past, and his recently divorced son, Seth, as well as Emily, a quiet college-age girl with something to hide. As each gardener tends to his or her plot of land, secrets are slowly revealed and the past is finally brought to bear.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Eva serves as the central character around with whom the rest of the characters revolve. What is it about Eva that draws people to her? Why were so many other people willing to put their faith in Eva when she wasn’t able to have faith in herself?
2. Many of the characters in this novel have storylines that mirror one another. For example, Eva loses her daughter in a car accident while Emily gives hers up for adoption. Mrs. Prendergrast’s parents disown her for marrying Martin just as Emily fears her parents will do if they find out about Rose. Discuss how these and other parallel plot points help to underline certain themes in the book.
3. There are multiple references to femininity and fertility throughout this story. Some references are positive (the beauty of pregnancy and childbirth, the girl-power bonding of the baking group and the “Mothers Union,” and the central character herself: Mother Nature) and some are negative (Martin becomes violent with Myrtle/Marnie both times that she is pregnant, Eva becomes hysterical whenever she is separated from Liam, and Eva and Megan both have extramarital affairs). What do you think Heavey is trying to say about the complexities of being a woman?
4. Uri and Myrtle (Mrs. Prendergrast) both mention having a difficult time expressing their emotions (pages 274, 325). What do you think are some of the problems that make it difficult for these two characters to express their feelings? Do you think their respective experiences with horrific physical and emotional violence played a role?
5. This book deals with some very dark subject matter, from spousal abuse to the death of a child and the Holocaust. Did you think that the book offered a hopeful message?
6. Emily is terrified of what her parents will think when they find out about Rose, and Eva is worried about what her mother will think of Seth. Yet both sets of parents are equally gracious in their acceptance of the new members of their families. Why do you think this gulf exists between the children and the parents in this novel (think also of Lance and Myrtle)? Do you see the situation changing with Liam and Kathy?
7. Why did Mrs. Prendergrast stay with Martin after he caused her to have a miscarriage? What would you have done?
8. How does each of the main characters change throughout the course of this novel? Discuss the course of each character’s progression through the novel. Which one did you most identify with and why?
9. The plaque on the bench given to the garden in honor of Eva reads “For those we have loved and lost, that they might linger here.” Explain how the garden can simultaneously be about remembering the past while also celebrating life and what’s to come.
10. At the end of the novel Uri makes an impassioned speech about the importance of the community garden in his life, saying, “this garden has given me so much . . . it very probably saved my life” (page 366). How do you think the garden “saved” the lives of each of the main characters?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Turn this month’s book club into a gardening club as well. Have your meeting in one of your favorite community parks or gardens, or in the garden of one of your member’s homes. If you want to go a step further, bring some seed packets and do a little planting as you discuss the novel.
2. This novel has many cinematic qualities. Discuss who you’d cast in each of the major roles if this book were to be made into a movie.
3. The story takes place in modern-day Dublin. Do some research on this world famous city by visiting www.visitdublin.com.
A CONVERSATION WITH TARA HEAVEY
What kind of research did you do for this novel? Are you an avid gardener yourself or did you have to do some studying before beginning to write?
This novel is a blend of research, knowledge assimilated over time and flights of the imagination. In preparation for Emily’s story, I spoke to a social worker who dealt with adoptions. After that, it was just a case of trying to put myself in her shoes, since I’ve never had to make such a heartbreaking decision myself. As for Seth, I had seen and heard various interviews over the years with people who didn’t discover their true sexual orientation until after they were married. I am thinking of one particular, remarkable such interview with a woman on Oprah (yes, we get her over here too), who said that she didn’t realize she was gay until she was pregnant with her daughter. Something to do with being filled with so much femaleness. She felt she couldn’t be with a man again. I found this fascinating and used this as part of Seth’s wife, Megan’s, explanation to him. Eva’s story relies most on the imagination. I think I was able to carry this off as she was the character with whom I most identified. Although I would like to point out that I have yet to have an extramarital affair! Neither have I—thank goodness— ever had to deal with the pain of losing a child. Again, it was a question of walking a mile in another woman’s shoes. Myrtle’s story of domestic abuse was born of the shocking statistic that the primary cause of death among pregnant women in the States was violence at the hands of their husbands or partners. I also did quite a lot of study in relation to life in England in the 1950s. Uri’s story required by far the most research. Because when you are covering a topic as important as the Holocaust, you have to ensure that you get your facts right. I read books, researched facts over the internet, and like most of us, have seen and absorbed many programs and films on the subject over the years. As for the gardening, I would love to claim that my garden is as beautiful and awe-inspiring as the one in the book. The reality is that it is a rather messy, sprawling country garden. It’s not without charm—old-fashioned roses, apple trees, and yew trees—but the garden of my imagination is so much nicer! I did have to look up certain facts along the way, and my father-in-law, who is a keen gardener, also helped me in this regard.
How did you come up with the character of Eva, who makes some mistakes, but who is also a genuinely kind and caring person? Was it important to you to have such a complex character at the center of your story?
In my opinion, Eva makes only one bad choice and that is to have the affair. Yes, it was important to me to make her a complex character because that is the reality of human existence. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, we are large; we contain multitudes. I don’t feel it is my place to sit in moral judgment on my characters. Merely to tell their stories. In a way, Eva is me. In a way, she is everywoman. And every woman—and man—makes her or his fair share of mistakes.
What made you decide to incorporate the Holocaust into this novel? What do you hope the reader will take away from Uri’s part of the story?
I have always wanted to write about the Holocaust. I was particularly inspired to do so after spending some time in Berlin and visiting the Jewish Museum there. I can’t think of a more important topic to address—and to honor. I think that ultimately what I was trying to convey was the triumph of the human spirit. How somebody—a child even—could survive the worst that could possibly happen to a person and go on.
Which character in this novel do you most identify with? Which character is your favorite?
I most identify with Eva. She is the same sex, of similar vintage, and a mother of young children. (In fact, her son, Liam, is very much modeled on my own son.) Because of this, and also to identify her as the central character, I employed the device of writing her story in the first person, whereas all the others are written in the third person. Whether anybody ever picked up on this, I have no idea! My favorite characters to write were Myrtle (Mrs. Prendergast to you!) and Uri. Perhaps because it was the first time I had tackled the stories of much older people—their lives seemed richer. And also because I found their stories intensely moving to write.
Was it ever a struggle for you to express the thoughts and feelings of characters whose life choices you may not have agreed with?
No. Because I believe that life is most definitely not black and white. And as a writer, I embrace moral ambiguity.
How do you set out to write a story? Do you start with an idea for a character? A plot? What are the parts of the writing process that you enjoy most? Least?
I usually write out a mission statement for a book before I start writing it. What am I trying to achieve? What am I trying to convey to the reader? In this book, it was my intention, amongst other things, to inspire the reader and explore the theme of healing through nature. I would normally have just a skeletal plot, which I flesh out during the process of writing. As for my favorite parts of the writing process, there are so many. There is something very magical about what Norman Mailer called this “spooky art.” When the characters appear to take over. When you look back on your day’s writing and wonder where it all came from. I also love that point where a novel “ignites.” The hardest part of a book for me is always the start. But there is a point where the story takes off and you get into your stride. The sooner this happens the better, for both writer and reader! And it’s wonderful to read back over your completed novel for the first time and realize that it works. My least favorite part of writing is definitely the revision. I find the second draft particularly hard to visualize. That’s where the editor comes in!
This novel has a very strong message of female empowerment. Is that something you purposefully set out to create and, if so, how does the garden factor into the process of self-actualization that each woman goes through?
I didn’t consciously set out to portray a strong message of female empowerment. This is the first time I’ve even thought of it! I suppose it just seems natural to me that women should empower themselves. If the garden factors into all this, it would be in the sense of Mother Nature being the source of all strength.
There are so many interweaving relationships in this story, was it ever difficult for you to keep them all straight? Were there any relationships that you thought were particularly important?
No—and I’m going to let you in on a secret. When I first wrote this book, the stories did not interweave as they do now. I wrote each story one at a time. In other words, in the first draft, you were told Emily’s story from beginning to end before I moved on to Seth’s story. When my Irish agent, Faith O’Grady, first read it, she thought it was too “episodic” and advised me to break up the individual stories into smaller chunks. I agreed. It was easier than I expected and worked better than I would have imagined. I think that all the various relationships between the gardeners are important in that they help each other to heal. Equally important, I think, is the relationship of each character to the garden.
On page 359 Mrs. Prendergrast says, “Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Is this something that you personally believe to be true? Is there a difference between letting go of the past and forgiveness? If so, do you think Myrtle actually forgives Martin at the end of the book, or does she just decide to let the past go?
Yes, I honestly believe that existing in a state of unforgiveness is the very worst thing that a person can do to himself. It doesn’t hurt the other person a fraction of the amount that it hurts you. Often the other isn’t aware of your feelings. In the meantime, you are “poisoning” your body, mind, and soul, with venomous thoughts of bitterness and revenge, which serve only to bring more negativity into your life. Of course, it’s not always easy and can often be an ongoing process in which you sometimes can feel as if you are taking one step forward, only to take another two back. But definitely worth the effort. I think that letting go of the past and forgiveness are very closely related, if not exactly the same thing. I do think that Myrtle forgives Martin at the end of the book—for her own sake if not for his. But, of course, both the forgiver and forgivee benefit in the long run.