“Most of us don’t even have clear lives in the present. How much more confused do our stories get when a few years go by? Or when we hand the stories down? Our mothers’ stories. They’ve been told so many times it’s a wonder they can still hold together.”
(from The Clover House)
The Clover House by Henriette Lazaridis Power tells the story of Calliope Notaris Brown, who is 35-years-old, newly engaged, and estranged from her mother for the past five years when she learns that her Uncle Nestor has died and left all of his belongings to her. For some reason, her mother, who returned to her native Greece after her husband’s death, doesn’t want Callie to make the trip to Patras to go through her uncle’s collections, photos, and documents. Clio is harsh and distant, and Callie only remembers her mother’s inability to adapt to American life and how she lived in memories and fought with her father, neglecting her in the process.
Callie, curious as to what her mother is hiding, leaves Boston amid an argument with her fiancé, Jonah, who wants a level of emotional commitment that she just isn’t ready to give despite having agreed to be his wife. She arrives in Patras during Carnival, a boisterous time of parades, seductive dances, and treasure hunts in the days leading up to Lent. It’s a carefree time, but Callie has a lot on her mind, between weeding through her uncle’s things in search of whatever might explain her mother’s inability to mother her and fighting her attraction to a man she met on the bus from the airport on his way to celebrate Carnival with his girlfriend and friends.
As Callie digs through Nestor’s belongings, she must piece together random artifacts and bits of information dating back to the Italian and German occupation of Greece during World War II. Her cousin, Aliki, believes the past should stay in the past, and her aunts, Sophia and Thalia, bicker about what Callie should know and what is best kept secret. Callie isn’t sure how much of her mother’s past has affected their relationship over the years, and with Clio being so guarded, it remains uncertain whether they will ever come to an understanding.
The Clover House is set mainly in Patras in 2000 and told from Callie’s point of view. I liked Callie, though I found it hard to relate to her. Because she’s introduced long after her father’s death and years since she last saw her mother, readers never see the family interact, making it difficult to understand exactly why her childhood makes it hard for her to forge relationships. I was riveted by the chapters set during the occupation of Greece, which reveal layer by layer Clio’s shame and guilt. I would have loved more chapters about Clio and the Notaris family, delving deeper into why the events of the war made it impossible for Clio to have a relationship with her daughter. I wasn’t exactly sure why the secret was so secret and so destructive given the other things the family had dealt with during the war.
Where the novel really shines is in the descriptions of Carnival, the customs and the costumes, the food and the parades, and especially the Bourbouli dances — where women wear masks and black robes that conceal their identities and possess all the power in choosing a partner. Powers’ writing is beautiful, bringing Greece and its turbulent history to life. Overall, I found The Clover House hard to put down, as I was captivated by the setting. I wish there had been more chapters set in the past, more of a focus on Clio during her coming-of-age amidst the war, but I was intrigued by these characters and their troubles from the start and not at all disappointed when I turned the final page. The Clover House shows how war brings about both shame and honor, how secrets meant to protect have the power to destroy, and how we shouldn’t let the past dictate our future.
Disclosure: I received The Clover House from Ballantine Books for review.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.