Book Review: Black Chokeberry

Occasionally I receive offers of book sample copies, with requests to review. As you can tell, I don’t respond terribly often. But this book, Black Chokeberry, by Martha Nelson, seemed apropos to our discussions.

It’s the story of three not-young women, and what transpires when one of them moves home to the small town of Oswego, New York.

Frances, the oldest of the three, is widowed. Ruby has never married. Ellen, who moves home, does so after a long marriage ends in divorce. So this is not a story about midlife women and men. Nor is it a story, by the way, about women out conquering the world. Let’s all note that we do know women over 50 often have a life of both men and jobs. But this is not that story. And I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Fairly early in the novel, one of the women is injured in an accident. They all wind up moving in together. A dog is involved. That’s pretty much it –  at least it’s pretty much the plot.

Because this is one of those books with more to it. Black Chokeberry is to the mysteries of single women over 50 as Lena Dunham’s “Girls” is to the secret life of 20-somethings. It’s a very closely observed, very small world, one which provokes some discomfort. This, from Ellen.

It all changed when she hit her fiftieth birthday. Deeply affected by the hard reality that she was in the final phase of her life, with only thirty more years of living if she were really lucky, Ellen had made a scared pledge to herself on that milestone birthday: only the best undersewar and beautifully made soft T-shirts from now on….

Sitting now on the edge of the bed in her tiny Oswego house, she reached into the nightstand for a Twix bar, unwrapped it quickly, snapped the twin bars in half, and popped one into her mouth, not caring that she had just brushed her teeth.

Such a small detail, the toothpaste. Such an indicator of personal distress, and one that made me uncomfortable. I welcome discomfort in art. The book is full of those small details that rarely make it into fiction, the embarrassing personal habits we develop when living alone, the anxieties, the quirks.

It’s also full of grace – of the sort that develops when people take care of each other.

I didn’t like everything, mind you. Too many brand names, for one. I prefer my literature remain in a non-pop-culture land, one which although it may reference a date, floats in fictional time. And the metaphor behind the book’s title is horribly overt. It’s so easy to use gardens as a crutch to meaning. Let’s leave that to Voltaire, shall we? But really, it’s an oddly Gothic little novel, which scratches along the sandy bottom of character and place very well, and keeps one good company, in all kinds of places.

For those of you with dreams of fiction – which I can’t write to save my life – it’s worth noting that Ms. Nelson has gray hair. That this is her first novel, and she is married with two dogs and a cat. All sorts of worlds are worth a close analysis.

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  • I eat sometimes after I’ve brushed my teeth. But then I always brush them again. I don’t like to go to bed with dirty teeth. Ick.

    PS I do think it’s noteworthy that she had a chocolate bar sitting in the nightstand. I keep emergency chocolate in the car and in my purse, but not next to my bed. That would be too dangerous, brushed teeth notwithstanding.

  • Well, I don’t like Twix bars and suddenly I’m craving one! I’m more of a memoir girl lately… but this, this I feel I need to pick up!

  • This morning when I saw your post, I was thinking how much I enjoy your pieces. Despite my lack of comments, I appreciate your take on style, and your accompanying photographs. This morning’s shift to book reviewing was an intriguing surprise, and I enjoyed your succinct take on the novel in question. “Let’s leave that to Voltaire, shall we?” made me laugh, and the excerpt you chose was indeed telling for the reason you mentioned: the private, painful detail is revealing and moving; the personal moment it’s hard, if not impossible, to admit to. Twix bars in a nightstand sound particularly disagreeable, and I think that’s part of why it’s absorbing information. I’d read this book based on your take on it, though I too prefer a book that allows me to float in fictional time. Thanks for the change-of-pace review and, Happy Thursday.

  • A small bone of contention, as a 20-something woman, Lena Dunham’s “Girls” is not at all the secret life of 20-somethings…. Maybe a small, small sub-section of spoiled hipsters – but she’s far from the voice of a generation that she seems to think she is.

    1:58 pm
    Loretta said...

    I love “Girls”, but I have to agree. Having 2 twenty-something daughters with lots of friends who live in and around the city, I can say that Girls is a small subset, but I so understand them. What I don’t get is that she writes in a leather journal, is all about personal essays, but she doesn’t have a blog?? Must be leaving that for the second season.

    12:10 pm
    Lisa said...

    I understand. It is a small sub-segment. I suppose it just seems the newest to emerge, that this group really wasn’t here before. But maybe I just didn’t know them.

  • Sounds like one for my summer reading list!
    “Scratching the sandy bottom…” honestly Lisa you are gifted with words.
    I am not too sure that you should consider yourself unable to write fiction.

  • I love book reviews, thank you for this post.
    Like you, I find the over use of brand names in fiction annoying.

    Have you read The Corrections?
    Jonathan Franzen’s prose is brilliant.
    He is the new Tom Wolfe.

    7:35 pm
    Patricia said...

    I much prefer Stewart O’Nan to Franzen. In my opinion O’Nan’s “Wish You Were Here” is superior to “Corrections.” O’Nan reveals keen insight about family relations with a much less bitter tone.

  • Your review AND the title are enough to convince me. (Chokecherries are part of my childhood landscape.)

  • Oh. It’s “chokeberry”. Still.

  • What IS a chokeberry? That only lends itself to the gothic feel of the book…chokeberry….like a metaphor for life closing in on you or something. I ought to know what that is, a chokeberry. I did grad school in Rochester, NY, near Oswego. But chokeberries? Hmm. Then again, they make grape pies there too…grape. Weirder than eating Twix and toothpaste together.

  • I always enjoy a book review and was surprised to find one here. Thanks, I will check it out.


  • Sounds like a great book, and I love reading a well thought out review.

    But would you recommend it to a woman who is more or less living Ellen’s life right now?

    12:11 pm
    Lisa said...

    Yes, I would. It’s comforting in a non-overly cheery way. And it gets better, by the way, that time. It gets so much better. I hope you have friends and support though, as the early part is bleak.

  • Will add this to my reading list!

    Thanks for the review.

    SSG xxx

  • I’m beach bound in a few weeks and will check this out.

  • I was ready to put it on my wishlist until you got to the last para. Now I will press, “purchase”. Thanks.