Book review: The Best Kind of Beautiful by Frances Whiting

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

There is something almost indescribably wonderful about watching someone come to life again.

Perhaps that’s because of the simple of beauty of watching something rich and vibrant spring forth from seemingly nothing – that’s never strictly speaking completely true; there’s always something there, it’s usually just deeply repressed and dormant – or because we have all been knocked down by life at one point or another, or over many, many energy-sapping points, and know what it is like to emerge on the other side.

Watching Florence Saint Claire, the immensely-identifiable with protagonist of Frances Whiting’s supremely delightful The Best Kind of Beautiful come from the darkness of her own soul is one of those inspiring moments where we not witness a life reborn but come to profoundly and intimately understand why this matters so much.

The genius of this novel is that folds this deeply meaningful journey back to engaged humanity in a quirkily sweet book, replete with a great beguilingly offbeat characters, all of whom, for all their light and airy conversations and appealingly idiosyncratically lives are just as existentially-challenged as the rest of us.

It’s this very happy marriage of the substantial and the fey that works so well and lures you in – trust me, you will mind a bit; the payoff is great and the journey sublime – to a story which wakes you up to the existence and need for revival of all those parts of your life you may have pushed to the darkest part of the back of the shelf, never, you thought, to be seen again.

“But the truth was, Florence didn’t need Monty to remind her of the earth’s magic. She felt it every time it cracked beneath her spade, the moment it yielded to release its strange scent of otherness. Florence loved watching the first trembles of the saplings she had planted, or the silent unfolding of a flower’s throat; when the earth’s skin broke and gave up its secrets, Florence felt she was witnessing the real entrance into Narnia.” (P. 13)

Whiting, through Florence’s quite believable and slow-burning awakening, makes a movingly compelling case to reach into those just-out-of-reach places and to see what might be lurking there, should you be so prompted to do so.

That’s the thing about these kinds of journey – they rarely spring from some conscious decision or deliberate of faith.

Like Florence, who is running from the loss of greatly-cherished loved one, and her past as a child star singer – the Saint Claires, led by the vivaciously flamboyant matriach of the family Amanda, were a very Von Trapp like group whose major claim to fame is the Christmas jazz standard “Santa Was a Jazz Cat”, a song so successful it just ate the family alive with its notoriety – and who has responded to these impossible to deal with emotional demands by retreating into determined loner status.

While she is close in a fashion to her family – mother Amanda and younger siblings Isolde and Puck (the Saint Clares do not believe in pedestrian of the moment names) – theirs are bonds forged of the unspoken pain and a dysfunctionality which, while not unique to their family, means that for every close moment, there are a thousand wedged far apart.

Frances Whiting (image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

In the midst of her uneventful social life and her job as an environmental-awareness officer at the local library, a role which also involves days out in the local forest of East Elm, Sydney, tending to the plants she loves so much, Florence lives a very small “l” existence, her only real contact being with widowed gay neighbour Victor (a master gardener in his own right), her housemate and sister Isolde, and with her workmates who include the quietly-appealingly and witty Arthur Flowers.

He and Florence enjoy a close friendship of adroit, clever verbal sparring and a shared love of plants but try as Florence might to push things along further, for she thinks she quite fancies sweet, taciturn but engaged Arthur, they seem destined to forever remain in the Friend Zone.

In the past Florence might have been content to stay there but a series of gently ever-escalating events push to consider whether perhaps she has lost far more than she thinks she’s gained by retreating to the nether regions of her own life.

Slowly, ever-so-slowly and with gathering conviction that her life needs a shake-up of a great many things, she begins to uncover the deep-seated pains and losses of her path, all of which, once one threat is pulled, begin to untwirl with a releasing, cleansing, ferocity that comes wrapped in a great deal of renewal, love and self-acceptance.

If that all sounds cheesily New Age, fear not, because such is Whiting’s grasp of how life both injures and heal us, The Best Kind of Beautiful feels gorgeously alive and real, as relatable as a conversation with a good friend, one who it must be said, writes with the kind of creativity that will have you scribbling down beautifully-articulated words and phrases on seemingly every page.

“Albert looked around. It was nice, he thought, particularly as the store had closed trading for the day and the lights from the cafés outside flickered through its windows.
It was like being caught in a Christmas carol.
Albert had always felt at home in bookstores, and libraries, and gardens. Adelaide said he was really a middle-aged woman called Enid.” (P. 126)

Take this description of a bride Arthur observes at one of the many events that seem to fill up his weekend – “Siobhan Peters – now Bishop – looked, Albert thought, like spinning fairy flossm her white gown taking on a lolly-pink hue beneath the party lights” – or this gem from p. 52 where the vivacity that is Amanda Saint Claire makes her grand and unmissable entrance – “On the rare occasions Amanda Saint Claire did enter the Hilda Park grounds, it was like a cruise ship arriving in the harbour with all its party lights on.”

Or this utterly gorgeous phrase from p. 126 where Albert talks about the atmosphere of the bookshop he’s in for a book signing – “”It was like being caught in a Christmas carol”, and this illuminating description of Amanda’s parents from p. 152 – “Philip and Nancy Catchpool, who walked through life like they were picking their way through a minefield …”

The point is that The Best Kind of Beautiful not only has some upliftingly, accessible meaningful things to say and enrapturingly wonderful characters with which to say it, but does so with a lyrical cadence and an imaginative, evocative use of words that will make your heart sing and your word-loving mind leap with joy.

It is the total package – whimsical and quirky, substantial and affecting, and deeply, engagingly human, the kind of novel that brings a great deal to the table, all of it geared to awakening us to the sheer wonder that life can be if we can just our hands off the disappointment and pain of the past.

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