Beyond the Bougainvillea
by Dolores Durando

Bell Bridge Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-611-94004-6.
Reviewed by Sharon Lippincott
Posted on 03/30/2011

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Romance

I don't recall ever having been moved to tears on the first page of a novel, nor do I recall reaching that point at least half a dozen more times before the final page. That did happen as I read Beyond the Bougainvillea, and it happened quickly, because I could not put the book down. Durando's gift for breathing life and realism into both characters and scenes kept my eyes glued to the page. Details in a few spots didn't quite align, and frequent typos and layout errors distracted, but the story was so compelling that these minor discrepancies were easily overlooked. The larger story remained intact.

The story is a study in contrasts, giving glimpses of a wide array of scenes and circumstances: starkly bleak 1920s North Dakota farm life, teeming depression-era Los Angeles, comfortable family homes, austere rooming houses, seedy dives, desperate times and people, ethnic diversity, tragedy, and triumph. Roots of the women's movement and other Twentieth Century social reforms are glimpsed. Durando touches on conditions and social issues to emphasize their importance, and highlight the story without allowing them to intrude. Her frequent use of dialogue to convey historical and descriptive details is so deft only a writer would notice the device.

In my opinion, the book's primary strength is Durando's ability to portray a wide variety of characters with remarkable compassion and insight. There is never a sense of blame or judgment, even though plenty of opportunities arise. That does not imply any characters were whitewashed. Marge Reagan was the classic heroine, referred to in an early section as "Miss Perfect," but even Miss Perfect has a few rough edges and plenty of challenges. Not surprisingly, she rises to these challenges with spunk, grace, and occasional flashes of Irish temper in keeping with her curly red hair.

I was sad to see the story end. It wasn't just the tale of Marge Reagan that had lifted my spirits, though her story alone was enough to do that. Ruth, Dr. Tom, Sarah and Annie, Boots, Nina, Bill, Cotton, and a host of lesser characters tugged at my heartstrings as well. How delightfully odd that even though bad things happened, there were never any villains in this tale. I found that comfortingly refreshing.

I am especially inspired by the fact that Durand published what appears to be her first book at the age of 90, and a fine, well-crafted book at that. She is living testimony to the fact that it's never too late to write, and that stories and minds can age as well as fine wine. She has provided a broad perspective on a wide scene, packaged neatly within 250 pages, a significant accomplishment for any writer.

Mrs. Durando didn't live the cruel life to which Bougainvillea's Marge Garrity was subjected as a girl—indeed, Mrs. Durando had a happy childhood being raised by her blacksmithing grandpa—but she does know whereof she speaks when describing the isolated and rough-hewn conditions of Dakota life.

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