The Clover House
Ballantine Books, 2013
There are legends within every family that are edited and often dramatized by each passing generation. At times, these narratives can help us feel connected with our particular community, as though by telling a story we are saying, “Here is what happened, this is what it means, and this is why I and my people are important.” Understanding the language of a family and gaining insight into those selective moments of memory—those legends—is at the heart of Henrietta Lazardis Power’s debut novel, The Clover House.
Power’s narrator, Calliope Notaris Brown, is a woman born of two cultures: her deceased father was an American whose seemingly “normal” name of Brown doesn’t leave much of a legacy for Callie, and her mother, Clio, is a Grecian living in her hometown of Patras and working to embrace everything Greek about herself except her past. Inside Callie’s search for the “truth” about her history is the struggle to identify with her family—a task which necessitates an analysis of the relationship between speaker and listener, particularly how these two points of view intersect and challenge one another. Ultimately, this relationship can vary depending on who the audience is; after all, do any of us really tell the same story twice?
Callie has been handed a potpourri of family stories that she must piece together. At times, these stories seem to hold more meaning than Callie is able to fully understand or appreciate. I found it easy to relate to this facet of her self-discovery because of my own experiences growing up in a Mormon household where I was bequeathed an immense volume of pioneer stories that dated back to the mid-1800s. Having strong Mormon pioneer heritage on both sides of my family caused for great reflection and comparison of hardships then and now. It was not uncommon for my mother to ask me to consider how many miles the pioneers had walked when, as a child, I would complain about washing the dishes or taking out the trash. Even now when I bring up the fallacy of juxtaposing those experiences, my mother will casually wave her hand as if wiping away the statement entirely and say something like, “I don’t remember you ever washing a dish…and even if you did, you always were overdramatic.”
While reading Power’s novel, I couldn’t help but think of the archetypal role of mother as the family secret-keeper, historian, and memory-maker. My mother, the youngest of her family, has always taken this role seriously, and she makes it a point to remind me of what a great responsibility it is. Even though my mom has three very capable older sisters, her role has always been to search out the genealogy of ancestors that have not yet been found. After she does this, my mother engages in the typical work that Mormons do in the temple, making an effort to bring together family lines that will be solemnized for eternity. Because families are viewed as being “forever” within Mormon culture, there is a substantial amount of attention focused on stories of the past.
Yet, Power seeks to challenge this notion of the archetypal mother, foregoing a clichéd narrative about bi-ethnic identity and instead presenting the reader with a strained relationship between a mother and a daughter. Clio is complex and difficult to love; As a reader I felt I was placed at a distance from her character. This aloofness is essential to Clio’s relationship with her daughter. While eating with her cousin, Callie reflects on this chasm between her mother and herself, stating,
“The karythopita is good, a winter dessert I have had only the few times when my mother’s nostalgia spurred her to make it. I used to think her fits of baking were meant to include me, to share with me the world she valued so much. But I learned soon enough that I did not figure in my mother’s nostalgic re-creations.”
Callie yearns for a sense of intimacy with her mother—something Clio has not shown any interest in developing. Only after learning about Clio’s experiences while living in Greece during World War II do we understand why she has problems with trust. From Clio’s point of view, Callie has so much and seems to take it all for granted, an impression that makes it hard for Clio to be sensitive and understanding of her daughter.
A difference in lifestyles and experiences has caused a division between the generations of my family as well, specifically my mother and myself. My mother is accustomed to making large sacrifices in the name of her faith. For example, for much of her life she went church meetings throughout the week, gave substantial financial tithes and fast offerings, and devoted service as a full time missionary in Central America for a period of eighteen months. Because I did not grow up making the same substantial sacrifices or having the LDS Church at the forefront of my social, cultural, and religious life, there remains some disconnect between us to this day.
Like Callie, I, too, have felt slighted by my mother’s lack of interest in the details of my everyday life, much of which does not pertain to religion at all, just as Callie’s life does not always center on her Greek heritage. Yet, I found myself drawn to the way Callie seemed to both push her mother away and invite her closer. There are times when Callie seems to say something simply for shock value. However, she has also traveled a great distance to take care of her uncle’s possessions, conveying her regard for family and family heirlooms. I was reminded of the many times I have adamantly scorned my mother’s pioneer and mission stories while at the same time asking questions and encouraging further dialogue. There is something about the past that I have both resented and admired. At times, I have felt embarrassed by the details of my family history: three-hour church meetings, no coffee or alcohol intake, substantial sacrifices of both finances and time. And yet, I also feel a measure of pride for my ancestors and how they left everything they had behind—some even losing their own children along the pioneer trek westward—for their belief. Even though I do not always fully understand my mother, I have come to respect and appreciate her more as I get older.
The Clover House is a novel that poses difficult questions: How do our parents’ pasts affect us? What can we learn from someone’s possessions after they pass away? What truths may we uncover through researching our ancestry? These are universal inquiries that individuals—myself included—confront in their pursuit to learn more about their heritage and thus a more comprehensive sense of self. And while Power may not provide succinct answers to any of these questions, she does create a beautiful world, moving through both the past and the future to engage the reader in an exploration of family relationships and what they mean in the present.
Kate Kimball is a PhD candidate in Fiction at Florida State University and is the Online Editor for the Southeast Review. She received an MFA from Virginia Tech. Her work has appeared in Arcadia, Weber: The Contemporary West, Ellipsis, The Midwest Review, The Chaffey Review, and The Hawaii Review, among others.