Author: Leslie Pietrzyk
Leaving one’s homeland but keeping the family tradition alive across all the miles of ocean and all the generations is both the sustaining life force for the Marchewka women and a suffocating burden that puts the individual in subjugation to the past. A multi-generational tale of love, hate, confusion, and self-discovery, Pears on a Willow Tree is the story of life and how we form ourselves from the roots of the past.
Rose is the great-grandmother who gives up her family in Poland to start a new life in a new place: America. Sustaining the traditions of her homeland give her comfort in bleak times as she and her husband struggle through a life of factories and long hours. Helen is her daughter. A good daughter overall, but in the dark hours of the night or in the depths of prayer, she might admit that part of her, a fiery terrifying part, wants to break free, if only through her future children and her imagination. Ginger, Helen’s daughter, despises all traditions that evoke the past. Ginger seeks to define herself not with what has come before her, but with what she herself creates; moving across country Ginger finds hope and then alcoholism. Amy is Ginger’s daughter and Rose’s great-granddaughter. She has the example of grandmother and her aunts, a love for the past, and yet an odd kinship with her mother, despite their fractured relationship. Amy, in the end, must find a way to merge the past and go forward into the future. What is tradition? Does it matter? Is family more important than discovering our own paths? Is the group greater than the whole? Is the answer in the instability of rebellion or the comfort of routine? Pears on a Willow Tree is a story of the conflicting desires that define us as a human being, the love and hatred of home and history.
A rich narrative, written with sharp honed words and the intriguing lapses between half formed desires and reality, the writing creates the different voices of women across the generations. Leslie Pietrzyk’s work resonates with honesty and depth, an atmosphere that is unique to this author. The words are sparing yet elegant, the surface simple, the depths of humanity running underneath and touching every aspect without ever evoking melodrama. For this, for what is both said and unsaid, for what is explained and for what can never be fully understood, the narrative slams into the reader’s heart and creates a relationship between reader and these very real women who populate the narrative, their voices weaving together into a vivid tapestry, a camera pull-out view showing the interlocking threads of family.
Told in a non-linear fashion, the stories of each woman are in the now, each speaking her own story conversationally, a mental dialogue that is almost telepathic and deep in the revelations it makes that even the characters are not fully aware. Each voice speaks directly to the reader, and while it is a little difficult to follow the generations and relationships at first, the vividness of each voice creates a unique narrative and real characters.
The majority of the story focuses on Ginger and her daughter Amy, the two main protagonists for lack of a better term. As such, this novel specifically addresses issues of alcoholism both from the perspective of the unrepentant alcoholic and her surrounding family. This plot thread weaves into the theme of leaving and Amy’s more successful creation of self – there is danger in separating from the pack yet it is also essential in its own way and just as tradition is an essential expression of self, it cannot be the only defining force. There is no direct answer, just more questions that will continue to haunt the reader long after the last page. The story gets at the complexity of life, conjured so beautifully by Pietrzyk in her second novel, A Day and a Year, which concentrates on mother daughter relationships and grief. A Day and a Year remains my favorite of this author’s work, but Pears on a Willow Tree is a close second and one of the few novels I purchased in hardcover to permanently keep in my library. Emotional, deep, gripping, and thought-provoking, this is a story not to be missed. Highly recommended.
- Frances Carden