This month, Liz of Adventures in Reading, Running and Working from Home is hosting Dean Street Press December. Margery Sharp’s first novel, Rhododendron Pie, had been out of print for years and was notoriously difficult to find before being reprinted by Dean Street Press in 2021. As I’ve previously enjoyed some of her other books I decided to read it for this month’s event.
First published in 1930, Rhododendron Pie is the story of Ann Laventie, who grows up in the Sussex countryside with her parents and two older siblings. The Laventies are a wealthy and accomplished family who consider themselves intellectual, artistic and refined; their neighbours, however, see them as cold and snobbish. Ann herself doesn’t fit in with the rest of the family – unlike her brother Dick, a sculptor, and sister Elizabeth, a writer, she hasn’t yet discovered where her own talents lie and doesn’t believe herself to be special or superior in any way. The more time she spends with the Gayfords, the large, cheerful, down-to-earth family who live nearby, the more she becomes aware of how different her own home life is.
The title of the book refers to the tradition in the Laventie household of presenting the children with birthday pies filled not with fruit but with inedible flowers. Aesthetically beautifully and appreciated by the rest of the family, but not by Ann:
“Every year she has hoped against hope, and every year the lovely inedible petals have cheated her. For she has a fundamental, instinctive conviction that they are out of place. Flowers are beautiful in gardens…and in houses, of course…but in a pie you want fruit. Apples. Hot and fragrant and faintly pink, with lots of juice…and cloves. She wished there had been apples in her pie.”
Although Ann loves her family and admires their intellectual brilliance, it’s her secret longing for the ordinary, conventional things in life that drives the story forward. When Dick and Elizabeth move to London and Ann goes to visit them there, her knowledge and experience of the world widens and she becomes more aware of what she really wants and what will make her happy.
It took me a while to get into this book, but once I did it was very enjoyable. I loved Ann and found it interesting to watch the internal conflict play out between her true nature and the values and prejudices that have been instilled into her as a result of her upbringing. Although there’s some romance in the book – Ann has two very different love interests and it’s quite easy to predict which one she’ll choose! – it never really becomes the main focus and is just one aspect of the story, along with the exploration of intellectual snobbery, the class system and the difficulties of finding your place in the world.
As I’d hoped, this was a good choice for Dean Street December and I’ll see if I have time for another book before the end of the month.