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Onyx reviews: Ella in Bloom by Shelby Hearon

Younger sisters grow up compared to older sisters, but older sisters are compared with perfection. This is the lesson Ella, once a younger sister but now an only daughter, learns during the year following her sister Terrell's death.

Ella grew up in the shadow of the seemingly perfect Terrell, her mother's first born. By the time Ella became a teenager, the gloominess had grown so deep she ran away from her family home in Austin, marrying her disreputable boyfriend Buddy before dashing across the state line to make a home in Old Metairie, Louisiana.

Buddy, plagued with wandering legs and roving eyes, left and returned to Ella numerous times. The only good thing he ever gave her is their daughter Robin, who calls herself Birdie, Terrell's former nickname. At fourteen, Birdie, an aspiring cellist, is far wiser than her years.

When Buddy is killed in an offshore accident, Ella is almost returned to respectability in her mother's eyes. His death also gives Ella a convenient explanation for why Birdie's father is not around. Being a widow is more socially acceptable than being an abandoned wife.

The shock of Terrell's death in a small plane crash is compounded by Ella's knowledge of where Terrell was going. The previous summer, Terrell had asked Ella to alibi her while she spent a clandestine weekend in New Orleans with her lover, leaving her respectable lawyer husband and two sons in Austin. When the plane crashed, Ella was the only person who knew Terrell was once again going to meet her lover. She bears this burdensome secret stoically.

Telling lies is part of Ella's reality. She lives in a run-down duplex house with a perpetually muddy yard in a shabby part of town. Even so, she diligently writes letters to her mother describing her pretend-life, the one where she is an expert rose breeder with a garden to rival her mother's. In reality, she earns her living watering plants and feeding pets in the homes of vacationing wealthy residents. Her botanical knowledge comes mostly from a gardener friend at one of the estates. The dress she wore to her sister's funeral was "borrowed" from one of her clients.

Ella and Birdie have a healthy relationship and a happy life together, but she is forced to face her family again when her father insists she return to Austin for her mother's birthday. This time she buys her dress at a charity store. Terrell's absence is deafening and Ella finds the dynamics of her relationship with her mother have changed dramatically. She begins to understand what it meant for Terrell to be regarded as an icon of perfection.

Sooner than expected, Ella and Birdie are back in Austin when her mother suffers a minor stroke. Over the course of these visits, and through a renewed friendship with Terrell's husband, Ella learns many details about the lives of her parents, her sister, and even her own late husband, that change her view of life and encourage her to start anew. She is not the only one who has been living a fabricated life.

Ella in Bloom is mostly light entertainment. It paints a heartfelt picture of Ella's mid-life angst, her unresolved, conflicted relationship with her domineering mother, her earnest, loving bond with her daughter, and her developing romance with her former brother-in-law. Picture a slightly more dysfunctional version of The Gilmore Girls. The story contains few real surprises—the ones Hearon doles out late in the novel are fairly mild, almost anticlimactic. That's not to say there aren't lessons to be learned from Ella's drama, but Hearon dishes these out with humor and levity.

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