Behind the Titles: A Closer Look
at The Mistake Tea Can Sometimes Make by Brittany D. Clark
Featuring ELJ Publications’ April Jones and Amber Hollinger
I simply love novelettes. They are long enough that you get to really live in a character’s world, but short enough that they are action packed. What did you think of the prologue? In the prologue we learn that Julia, the main character, loves dandelions while her husband does not. At first he’s willing to mow around them, but after a while he mows over them. The reaction you expect is that Julia will be upset, mad maybe, but what happens is that she watches her husband mow over them from the window and cries. Initially it seems like an over reaction, right? I mean, who cries over a weed? But as we get to know Julia more and more through each section of the story, it is this reaction in particular that sets her up perfectly for the reader. She’s sensitive and able to see things that others cannot, like the loveliness of a weed. I think that it takes a special person to find beauty in the mundane. It is a skill that’s often overlooked and underappreciated, like her husband’s reaction, but adds more beauty to the world.
I have only read a baker’s dozen of novelettes in my life. But I, too, appreciate novelettes for their artistic brevity. Instead of wandering an entire museum, as one might in a novel, a reader is able to spend some moments of intrigue and investigation with just one signature piece. I liked the sort of Trickster qualities in the prologue, in that the author offers a concise summary of all that follows, without really giving much at all away. With one gentle anecdote about the way each character sees and unsees those dandelions, readers glimpse impending evolutions of the primary human relationships within this family trio. I also like how, at first read, many of these puzzle pieces don’t seem to fit together. But, as with analysis of any “break-up,” the “answers” become clearer and more coherent upon closer examination (you simply must re-read it). I feel that Julia’s responses here parallel the way she behaves in and responds to many changes in her personal relationships—as a woman, a wife, and a mother. For instance, at times her somewhat sensitive, perceptive, dissociative nature transforms her, arguably, into a passive observer in her own life.
This novelette is split up into section rather than chapters. Each section is another layer building Julia’s life. We start with her in sixth grade where she loves science and build up to the point she meets and marries her husband and then keep going. It takes immense skill to be able to tell a story like this. It’s so challenging because you as the author have to understand where the story is going. What I mean by this is that in your head, or on paper, you have to have the whole story down. Then you have to select which parts of the story to include, because even though you love the character and all the parts of their story your reader may not. The skill comes in being able to build a beautiful story, which this one is, without adding too many details because when you add too many details you lose sight of the importance of the story.
At first, I found the varied structure distracting, with its major events listed and sectioned. But then it came together for me. This technique gives the story layers a distinctive feel of being carefully and concretely built, brick-by-brick. Further, and uniquely, it gives readers a sweet suspension of time-space: there is a sense of a first-second-third timeline existing simultaneously with a sense that everything is happening all at once in the narrative. It is what it is (/was/will be…) I agree that this must have been smartly purposeful. For, in so many ways, the style and tone suite this particular story and its peculiar characters, allowing much of the novelette to be read with the matter-of-fact disconnect of a newspaper article.
Was there one particular section that struck you more so than the others? My particular favorite was the section that was “cut” out of the newspaper announcing Julia’s marriage to Eric. I liked this one so much because of the other sections included, like the one about the Thanksgiving dinner time being moved. I think that this section does what they all do which is direct our focus onto Julia without her necessarily being in the spot light. The outside details, the ones not focused on Julia, only make us more interested in her and what’s going on with her. Did you see this in other sections?
This book is indeed well crafted. It is difficult to choose a favorite segment, particularly when each item seems to be treated with such “mundane” equanimity. I was probably most struck by the poem. Throughout the story, we get only get small bits of Julia and her inner self. But, quite wisely, the poem is a subtle explosion: a sunburst of illumination that reveals much about this character’s view of the world. It seems to help explain why she simultaneously engages in and disengages from the world around her. For better or for worse, Julia is a person who can only pretend in each role she takes on: student, wife, mother, without ever fully committing. Just like how, as you say, the author has chosen to focus on her but not necessarily spotlight her. She pops in and out of existence, often within apparent extremes: extroverted to introverted, scientist to artist, pregnant to fruitless, grounded to transient. She even chooses a mate with similar characteristics: intelligent, dreamy, impractical drifter—which seems to negatively affect their quality of parenting and their strength/duration of partnership. Julia seems to love the idea of things, the idea of people, and the idea of being—instead of those in and of themselves. Eventually, and tragically, those closest to her realize the game. For whatever reason, she lives like an alien in her own skin, which comes full circle in the closing pieces. Fascinating read.