Definitions differ, but many people eventually discover the value in approaching life’s challenges with at least a modicum of grace. Grace and its manifestations are at the heart of The Poet’s House, Jean Thompson’s charming novel about a young California woman with a learning disability who figures out her place in life with the help of an unexpected mentor: the acclaimed poet whose garden she tends.
Carla is in her early 20s and working for a landscaping company in Northern California. She didn’t finish college, in part because, as she puts it, “I have one of those brains that doesn’t process words on a page very well.” Her world consists mainly of her job, where she works for a guy who, in one of Thompson’s many beautiful pinpoint details, “was always convinced that his sweaty charms impressed the lady clients.” Carla also maintains relationships with her boyfriend, Aaron, who works in the IT department of a bank, and her mother, who wants Carla to consider a medical career.
Carla has never given any thought to poetry and assumes all poets “wore berets and drank too much.” But then she starts tending the garden of Viridian, a 70-something poet’s poet with only one published book to her name and a considerable air of mystery. Part of the mystery derives from her relationship years earlier with Mathias, “the most famous, brilliant poet of his era.” Many people believe that Mathias destroyed a new cycle of poems before his death by suicide at age 35, but Viridian has a copy of them. The only problem: She won’t tell anyone where the poems are, even though their publication would give her the financial windfall she desperately needs.
Part of the fun of The Poet’s House is in its small details and memorable descriptions, such as when Thompson writes that Viridian’s attire is “equal parts yoga practice and Star Wars costuming.” But the biggest pleasures are Carla’s evolution, the many well-drawn characters and subtle pokes at the competitiveness of the literary world. The novel occasionally takes too long to develop its themes on its way to a tidy conclusion, but this doesn’t distract from its ample joys, not least of which is Carla’s recognition that she is like the finest poems: complex and wondrous, with hidden mysteries and graces that aren’t immediately apparent.