Novelist R.R. “Bob” Davis never knew that much about his immigrant grandmother’s voyage to America and short life there.
“She came from Greece to meet a man she’d been engaged to in an arranged marriage,” he says. “I never knew much else about her other than she’d died of pneumonia in the 1930s. When I finally started to learn details, I knew immediately that I’d learned something very important about my family — and that I had a book.”
He started writing, and a year later had a first draft of The Various Stages of a Garden Well-Kept (Blackwater Press, 2022), a moving — in every way — novel exploring multiple generations of a Greek-American family in Akron, Ohio, and the friends, lovers, and at least one otherworldly feline that surround them.
Davis’ story follows two 40-something brothers, Herman and Richard, who have become mired in their lives due to heartbreak and happenstance. Their stories alternate out with letters from their late grandmother Irini as she travels to the United States in 1920, the recollections of their aging mother Marieta throughout her life, and the perspectives of Annie, a dancer and poet, and Sarah Jean, a barista and caretaker, with whom Herman and Richard become romantically entangled.
There’s a family secret at the core that, unknown to the brothers, has shaped their relationship with their mother. To give any more away would count as a spoiler, but suffice to say, its corrosive damage cannot be undone without its airing.
Davis, who works locally with dementia patients, constructs the novel in alternative first-person chapters; everyone has a voice, including the cat. His style tends to be fairly intimate, running up against the edge of stream-of-consciousness without tipping into complexity for complexity’s sake.
“I was very much inspired by Barbara Kingsolver,” he says. “I read The Poisonwood Bible just prior to writing the book. I was very impressed by the differing perspectives and voices changing as the story evolved. I thought it would be fun to jump into someone else’s shoes for a while.”
Along with the changing perspectives, Davis plays with different styles of writing. His experimental text includes chapters written as stage plays and passages of poetry expressed by various characters. Taken whole, it creates an almost otherworldly quality to the book’s mood. This is underscored by the addition of Frieda (after Frida Kahlo), whose neighborhood peregrinations give an almost magical-realist frame to the story.
Davis notes that the cat is real—“currently sitting on my bed,” he says — even if Frieda’s philosophical musings are mostly conjecture.
As for the book’s Obama-era Ohio location, that’s intimately familiar to Davis. He’s originally from Akron and based many of the novel’s locations on places he knew in real life.
“I went and drove by the house where my mother was born in South Akron. It used to be an immigrant neighborhood,” he says. “The house is still standing, though the local population is different. It’s always interesting to follow how places change.”
The Various Stages of a Garden Well-Kept is a story of love and loss, but it is ultimately buoyed by the possibility of what fresh insights a new season might bring to light.
R.R. Davis, Hendersonville. See the author’s Facebook page for more information. The Various Stages of a Garden Well-Kept is sold through blackwaterpress.com and also at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville.