Border towns can be grey zones with split identities, regions where loyalties are divided, nations kiss, laws are broken, and boundaries are both enforced and transgressed. As literary settings, borders offer up stories that defy easy categorization: American Jeffrey Eugenides’ Detroit-based novel Middlesex and Canadian Craig Davidson’s Niagara Falls-based Cataract City come to mind as excellent examples of the form. I grew up on the Canada-U.S. border, near where the Niagara Peninsula of Southern Ontario blends into the Niagara Frontier of upstate New York – as influenced by American culture as Canadian. As a result, I’m always interested in novels that tell stories from the “grey zone” of a border region.
Waiting for Chrysanthemums by Windsor-based novelist Marisa De Franceschi is a wonderful addition to CanLit/AmLit (as well as “ItCanLit”) border novels. It deftly combines the suspense of a “police procedural” mystery novel set in the Detroit-Windsor area in the 1980s with a character-driven family story that focuses on three generations of Italian-Canadian women: Lily, her mother Caroline, and grandmother Regina. The result is a novel that offers the pleasures of a well-plotted mystery novel written by an author who clearly loves and understands the genre, along with the web of relationships between mothers and daughters, wives and husbands, enemies, lovers, and thugs – all set in the sometimes-dangerous Windsor-Detroit region.
The central character, Lily, is an attractive Windsorite married to hunky Michael, a construction contractor who finds himself mixed up with a group of shady characters who are in the habit of dying mysteriously. To complicate matters, the detective assigned to the case is a former lover of Lily’s. Both Lily’s mom Caroline and grandmother Regina – feisty and passionate women in their own right – find themselves thrown into harm’s way. De Franceschi doesn’t protect her characters; bad things happen to good people. The chemistry between Michael and Lily makes the unfolding mystery particularly tantalizing. Despite the violence and criminal activity, De Franceschi writes with a twinkle of humour.
The chrysanthemums of the title refers to a type of skyrocket. In fact, fireworks bookend this novel, which opens with its main characters gathered at a cross-border celebration of Canada Day and U.S. Independence Day at a swanky Detroit hotel. As the cover art makes clear, “chrysanthemums” also refers to blood spatter from bullet wounds, something that happens to more than one of De Franceschi’s characters.
Well paced and entertaining, with just enough detail about the inner workings of the construction industry and cross border relationships, both legal and illicit, this novel will make a great summer page-turner for those interested in suspense/crime novels, literary fiction and character-driven stories. It’s a delicious read that cries out for a sequel.
Terri Favro is the author of Sputnik’s Children, Once Upon A Time in West Toronto and Generation Robot.