The House Beside the Cherry Tree isn’t a book I would naturally gravitate towards. However, I have never been so glad I picked up Lea Taylor’s book.
The House Beside the Cherry Tree masterfully intertwines the intimate and the mundane as the author takes us on an in-depth exploration of the stifling societal expectations of 1959, where one moment alters the entire trajectory of all three protagonists lives.
Taylor explores the confines of both gender and moral expectations during the period through shifting between three first person perspectives, to explore the fall-out of an unplanned pregnancy conceived out of wedlock by teenagers Diane and Richard. Their respective families quickly arrange the couples nuptials to mitigate their shame, with the reader also knotted into this fraught union. The novel follows the couple and their daughter Frankie through the decades as she grows up, with Taylor expertly capturing each character unique voice, providing an intimate insight into their personal struggles.
‘Married, what does that word really mean?’
As Diane languishes in her loveless marriage, the consequences of being forced to sacrifice one’s identity in order to conform to societies’ expectations is carefully teased out throughout the narrative. While Diane isn’t your typical likeable character, it is hard not to feel some empathy for her even during her worst moments. We, as the readers, are uncomfortably put into the role as voyeurs, being forced to watch Diane’s worsening treatment of her daughter in the private sphere, and do nothing. Taylor’s sensitive handling of what society deems the cardinal sin for women, being a bad mother, provides a fresh and engaging perspective that draws readers in, (so much so I finished this book within a day).
One of my favourite aspects of Taylor’s writing is the figurative spaces she leaves surrounding the morality of characters behaviours, leaving the reader room to interpret elements of the novels in their own way. This distance enhances the narrative by encouraging the reader to take an objective perspective as they explore the character’s personal struggles. The reader is left to reflect on the question of how much of our identity is curated by the oppressive expectations of society, and where the responsibility of who we become lies.
Throughout the novel, we see Diane’s husband Richard struggle with the confines of masculinity and what it means to try be a good father, a good husband, and a good man. Taylor’s thoughtful exploration of the intersection of these roles highlights the nuances conforming to each roles’ expectations entails. The fact Richard is largely absent from the private sphere due to working away, highlights the conflicting gendered expectations we hold as his role as a ‘father’ avoids the same level of public scrutiny that Diane is beholden to.
‘What was her first word? I didn’t know’
The third perspective is the couple’s daughter Frankie who illustrates the damaging impact of prioritising public expectations over our private and intimate relationships. Both Diane and Richard’s relationship with Frankie can be described as superficial at best. The couple prioritises societies judgement of them as good or bad parents over their relationship with their daughter, leaving a distinct lack of emotional intimacy.
This is highlighted by Frankie’s emotional loneliness and disconnect from both her parents. Richard remains predominantly absent from the domestic sphere, taking a supporting role in Frankie’s parenting while his wife shoulders the brunt of the responsibility. While Richard provides moments of tenderness and love towards his daughter that she is sorely lacking, these interactions are only surface deep with Frankie’s true feelings ignored and dismissed. Alternatively, Diana is physically present but emotionally absent, simply conforming to the role of a parent through fulfilling Frankie’s basic needs such as clothing her, but remaining completely neglectful of her more complex needs.
Diane’s masquerading as a parent eventually breaks down as illustrated by her mental decline and her increasingly abusive behaviour towards Frankie, albeit still in private. The fact Diane’s mental breakdown only offers her a slight reprieve from her role, illustrated just how embedded societal expectations are. Despite the obviously broken family unit, with these fractures stemming from the moment Diane and Richard were forced into their marriage, everybody is expected to continue performing to societies’ demands, with everyone suffering as a result. The fact Diane and Richard are unable to shed the weight of these expectations, even for the sake of Frankie’s wellbeing, shows just how embedded societies demands are in our collective consciousness.
The House Beside the Cherry Tree sensitively highlights the debilitating impact of societal expectation, with the novel flawlessly encapsulating the claustrophobia of meeting these demands.
In summary, Taylor’s story is bold and brilliant and I already can’t wait to see where she takes it next, as I for one am not ready to say goodbye to Diane, Richard, and Frankie quite yet.
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