Apr 23

Book Review: Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open HeartMister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart by Carol Wall

The best thing I can say about this book is that it made me cry. I suppose that’s not too hard, because I cry easily, especially when the subject matter (people getting cancer and dying) is something that I’ve lived with. I just thought I would like it a lot better. It sounds like a great book: a cross-cultural memoir dealing with a bi-racial friendship and gardening set in the American South. It’s like it was a made-to-order Oprah book. I had to keep checking the cover to see if it really was a memoir, really was written by the narrator. Surely these weren’t real people, surely they were just caricatures concocted by a marketing panel picking out keywords from research findings?

I know what’s wrong with this book, but I don’t know how the author could have fixed it. The problem is that it’s all too airbrushed. The story felt like it was at arm’s length, the relationships all felt small-talk cordial, any unappealing parts of anyone’s personality were cleaned up and put away to keep from putting people off. I know from the name on the cover and the photos in the back that these were all real people, but they didn’t feel like real people.

Let’s start with Mister Owita, whom the narrator calls by his first name. He calls her Mrs. Wall and she calls him Giles, and even when she insists she call her Carol, he doesn’t. But she didn’t start calling him Mister Owita, she kept calling him by his first name. Yes, it’s cultural differences in formality, but it heightened the power differential between the two of them. She remains the white lady with money and status, and he remains the man who works as a bagger at the food mart. When she learns that Mr. Owita is actually Dr. Owita, owing to his PhD in horticulture, she’s freaked out. The power structure is subverted. Educated people are owed respect and she’s been treating him like an uneducated person. The fact that she’s upset by her own behavior (not treating him the respect he’s due as an educated person) just emphasizes that she didn’t respect him before. If you respect someone as a human being to begin with, the fact that they have a doctorate shouldn’t change your opinion of them. That she never does keep calling him Dr. Owita kind of emphasizes that she’s really only comfortable with him as an employee/inferior.

So the book is about race relations in that there’s a friendship between a white woman and a black man, but it’s not really about race relations. It’s the kind of feel-good stuff that you read if you want to feel like you’re a good person and not racist but you don’t actually want to change your behavior or have to suffer much in the way of uncomfortable feelings. Yes, there is a scene where she defends him from a manager who calls him by an infantile nickname, but mostly she felt like a very conservative lady who had zero interest in doing anything to subvert the status quo. She wants everyone to be happy and content with their station in life, not for anyone to change their station or look too closely at the fairness of it. Which is fine, I guess, if it fails at that level, because it’s also touted as a memoir about gardening.

Carol Wall doesn’t seem to like gardening that much. She hates azaleas, doesn’t like flowers, and even after all her gardening experience, manages to almost kill a snake plant. Even I haven’t killed a snake plant, and I’ve killed just about everything. She feels revulsion at putting her hands into gardening gloves, does not want to touch the soil, and did I mention she doesn’t like flowers? What kind of person doesn’t like flowers? Someone who doesn’t much care for plants, that’s who. She only wants a garden in the first place so she can keep up with the neighbors. She manages to tolerate the azaleas, and even accepts a few flowers (nothing too garish!) but even by the end of the book I didn’t feel like she really cared much for gardening. The way she described things didn’t sound like someone who loved plants. I’m picturing the pitch session with her agent “So, ramp up the gardening part. Gardening appeals well to our target demographic.” Gardening only seemed valuable to her in that it was her connection to Giles Owita, whom she does like.

Giles Owita did not feel like a real person. There’s a photo of him in the back of the book, and I wonder who he was, because the person in the book was pretty flat. He was written like a Buddhist saint, or like a black man written with all the scary parts removed so that even sheltered white ladies could feel like they could be friends with him. He’s from Africa, so he’s exotic. He teaches Wall some words in Luo so that she can trot them out and feel multi-cultural. And best yet, being African means he doesn’t have that awkward taint of “my ancestors were owned your ancestors so I feel very uncomfortable about dealing with you.” He’s very Christian, as is Wall. (They spend a lot of time praying for one another.) But they never feel much like friends. They feel like acquaintances who sometimes do things for one another out of a Christian duty. They never seem to quite feel comfortable with one another, despite sharing so many values. He’s a family man who wants his daughter to be able to come to America. (I’m picturing the hypothetical agent saying, “oh yeah, our target demographic loves anything about hardworking immigrants who want to live the American dream.”) Also, he shares Wall’s suffering in that they both have major health issues.

This book is mostly about cancer and other major illnesses. That’s really the part that made me cry, because Wall had suffered cancer before, had a sister who died young, had parents who were deeply affected by that death. She is herself deeply affected when Mister Owita has a stroke, as her parents are in a nursing home early on, and she has to deal with their declining health so there’s that parallel. That is the aspect of the book that made me cry. You pile that much suffering on and even cardboard characters bring on pathos. I don’t particularly enjoy crying over books, but I know some people love it. If you love a book that makes you weep and frequently recommend tear-stained paperbacks by saying “it was amazing, I ran through an entire box of tissues!” this is probably your book. In a sad-to-happy ratio, this book rivals a Haruki Murakami novel. But again, it felt ham-handed. I should have been warned by the cover. Books that are touted as “enduring” “heartfelt” “touching” and “uplifting” usually have more misery than a famine in an orphanage. I was misled. I thought it was a memoir about friendship and gardening.

So, to sum up, this book isn’t really about gardening because it doesn’t seem like the main character really likes gardening. It also doesn’t really feel like it’s about friendship because the two main characters are never on a first-name basis. It’s a book about cancer and suffering, but I felt at a remove from it because Wall didn’t seem like she was willing to let the reader know anything that would make us have a negative opinion of her, as if she cared more about protecting her image than in sharing her story. She does a few things that are maybe not nice (accusing her husband of infidelity when she finds another woman’s dress in her closet) but it’s all papered over and smoothed up like a laugh track and a sappy end-music cue to let us know that the half hour episode is over and we all learned a moral. It feels like a memoir written by a woman who fears the judgement of others more than she fears dying by cancer. It might be an amazing story, if we got to see all the parts that were airbrushed out, but this version isn’t one that I was really engaged with.

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