The Unlikely Lavender Queen: A Memoir of Unexpected Blossoming
by Jeannie Ralston

Broadway Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-7679-2795-6.
Reviewed by Becky Lane
Posted on 05/14/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir

Have you ever noticed how the one thing that most attracts you to a person can end up being the thing that, in time, makes you absolutely crazy?

Jeannie Ralston's friend Kim once told her "You're just not very adventurous." But any girl who was willing to move from Tennessee to New York, after landing an internship with McCall's magazine, must have had some longing for excitement lurking inside. From there, she carefully engineered a flourishing career as a freelance writer and, thanks to fashion editor Kim, a well-dressed one at that. When she was assigned to work with Robb Kendrick, a cute young photographer from National Geographic magazine, Jeannie got swept right off her Manolo Blahniks and into a life beyond her imagining.

It began as a whirlwind of travel and excitement, where she might wake up on her thirtieth birthday and find her bikini-clad self on the cover of Travel + Leisure magazine. So how did she end up at age forty, living on a farm outside of Blanco, Texas, with work-roughened hands, aching back, and a husband who's rarely home? Ah, therein lies the story!

When Robb first announced that he despised living in New York and wanted to move back to Texas, Jeannie felt sure he would come around eventually. However, she had no idea just how persistent and persuasive her new husband could be. Next thing she knew, they owned a house in Austin.

Of course, that was just the beginning. Robb is an idea man, a man who needs to challenge himself with new projects. A man with itchy feet, enamored with the idea of being a pioneer. After Austin, he hit upon the notion of transforming an old stone barn near Blanco into their home. Jeannie couldn't imagine moving to the country, but eventually caved in, on the condition that Robb must agree to their starting a family. Next, he was inspired by the lavender fields in Provence, and thought, why not in the Texas Hill Country? Though he didn't ask Jeannie to take over their lavender farm while he was away on assignment, both seemed to assume that she would. "This was the natural dance of our relationship. When he was off traveling, which totaled about eight months out of the year, though not all at once, I would get the ball, whatever the ball happened to be at the time."

I connected with this book on so many levels. First, it was just a great read. There was never a moment when I felt my interest flagging, and each chapter left me wanting more. Second, the Texas Hill Country is a delightful setting, uniquely beautiful and peopled by such interesting characters that it could easily hold its own against Tuscany or Provence. When I tried to picture a young woman whose previous life was straight out of "Sex and the City" dining at the Blanco Bowling Club Cafe or paying a social call on the crone next door who was busily carving up a deer and plopping the raw steaks down on the table right in front of our New York immigrant, I laughed so much that I almost needed a change of underwear.

On a much deeper level, though, The Unlikely Lavender Queen spoke to me of the struggles that all women today face: managing two big careers in a single relationship, becoming the caboose that follows a husband's engine, facing the ticking fertility clock--all the tradeoffs we make and what they cost us. It's not easy to bloom where we're planted.

At first Jeannie found herself wondering how much further from her true self she could go. Robb's attitude was looser: "You've just got to be open to surprises. Most people are scared of them. They'd rather be safe and comfortable than surprised." In time, thanks to his pushing and prodding, she found the courage to be a pioneer, discovered untapped talents that amazed them both, and together they launched a Texas industry. After a disastrous season when they were forced to deal with drought, floods, and grasshoppers of near-biblical proportions, a friend of Jeannie's said perhaps she had ended up in agriculture to learn the Zen of farming: the need for patience and letting go.

Once they ran out of projects and renovations at the lavender farm, though, Robb began to get restless and both he and Jeannie grew tired of having people descend on them each weekend. They sold part of the land, planted new lavender fields on property closer to town, and began to build another house. But when they decided to take the family to Mexico for Spanish lessons, their plans turned upside down. They now reside in San Miguel de Allende, though Jeannie still consults with and conducts seminars for Texas lavender growers.

I think perhaps Jeannie ended up with Robb because each needed the other for balance. Had she stayed in New York, she would have forever been the journalist, looking on and chronicling other's adventures. Now she is the star of her own story.

For more than 23 years, Jeannie Ralston has been writing for magazines, both on-staff and as a freelancer. She has been a contributing editor for Parenting magazine for the past 8 years. She now lives with her husband and their two sons in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Visit her website.

Check out our interview with the author of The Unlikely Lavender Queen.

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