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Bittersweet 'Flowers': a cruel domestic bouquet

Rosemary Daniell's "Fatal Flowers" is a memoir that uses the author's personal experiences of growing up in the South to explain the strict and contradicting ideal of a Southern woman.

The book is brutally honest, verging on the vulgar and crude, at times leaving the reader blushing with embarrassment, mouth hanging open in shock.

Daniell's mother's suicide is the pivotal point around which the story revolves. It opens with the sad phone call Daniell's sister makes to tell her that her mother is in intensive care.

From this starting point Daniell backtracks, telling the reader her life story and how her childhood in Georgia affected her experiences in a way that is completely Southern.

Throughout "Fatal Flowers," Daniell attempts to explain and draw conclusions about the way Southern men and women act and how this in turn causes repression, sexual frustration and unhappy women.

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    It is clear Daniell tries to account for her mother's suicide by focusing on the "Southern belle" ideal her mother tried to achieve. What Daniell believes is that both the personal desire and societal pressure to conform to this ideal made her mother crazy.

    The tales of her mother and her own self are laced with imagery of the "moonlight and magnolias" South.

    But shadowing the pretty picture is the story Daniell paints, one full of rot and misery which gives the book a Faulkner-esque gothic horror.

    Daniell describes her childhood family life in the 1940s with an adult wisdom.

    "I had begun to learn, in a superbly effective subliminal lesson, that in a Southern climate, open wounds -- even scar tissue -- can fester for decades," Daniell writes.

    Daniell's search to satiate her sexual appetite is mirrored in her desire to become a writer -- both break the lines of propriety, both make her less than a woman in the eyes of the South, but both make her happy.

    She writes about how her own desire to write poetry and novels, despite having to conform to a housewife standard, is a reflection of her mother's desire to become an author.

    If both women became writers, they then would break all the rules of society and sexuality.

    Daniell's mother fails to break the boundaries of Southern femininity, and her failure culminates in her suicide.

    Trapped, she tries, but never quite succeeds as the belle she was supposed to be.

    "Her fear of her own intelligence, her possible power -- and what would surely be the subsequent loss of 'love'--was too great," Daniell says, explaining why her mother would not let herself become a writer.

    But Daniell does manage to break free, and although her family is shocked and disapproving of her behavior, she becomes a writer, divorces her third husband and goes so far as to have female lovers.

    Daniell questions the ideals society places on Southern women, both in the past, and now. She questions the realistic consequences of being married and totally dependent upon her husband. She questions why women like her mother, who followed all the rules of Southern female propriety, were left with nothing but "tangled costume jewelry," "broken necklaces," "a ripped trousseau" and an alcoholic husband.

    As a child, Daniell is determined it will not happen to her.

    But it does. She is married by the age of 16. After three husbands and three children, Daniell realizes being the perfect housewife will not change the behavior of her "good ole boy" husbands. She finds that baking perfect pies and raising good children will not stop any of them from drinking, beating her or committing adultery.

    Throughout the book she searches for happiness, and, in the end, she finds escape in writing, fulfilling her sexual desires without guilt. Daniell seemingly believes that the events and lifestyle that perhaps drove her mother to suicide would have done the same to her had she not had the strength and will not to follow her mother's footsteps.

    Daniell writes in clear prose and gives apt descriptions with an honest hand. The honesty may be a bit much for a reader expecting "moonlight and magnolias," but it is an eye opening way of delving deep into Southern culture; so far, in fact, that it may open too many boxes and illuminate too many shadows.

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