Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of 'A Memory of Violets" by Hazel Gaynor Served with Watercress Tea Sandwiches (and a Recipe for a Versatile Watercress Compound Butter)

Last week's TLC Book Tour stop (the psychological thriller One Step Too Far) took me to modern-day London. This week's novel is still set across the pond, but took me on a journey back to Victorian times where poor and often infirm children sold watercress and flowers. I'm reviewing A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London's Flower Sellers by Hazel Gaynor, and serving it up with Watercress Tea Sandwiches and a recipe for Watercress Compound Butter.

Publisher's Blurb:

From the author of the USA Today bestseller The Girl Who Came Home comes an unforgettable historical novel that tells the story of two long-lost sisters—orphaned flower sellers—and a young woman who is transformed by their experiences. 

“For little sister. . . . I will never stop looking for you.”

1876. Among the filth and depravity of Covent Garden’s flower markets, orphaned Irish sisters Flora and Rosie Flynn sell posies of violets and watercress to survive. It is a pitiful existence, made bearable only by each other’s presence. When they become separated, the decision of a desperate woman sets their lives on very different paths.

1912. Twenty-one-year-old Tilly Harper leaves the peace and beauty of her native Lake District for London to become assistant housemother at one of Mr. Shaw’s Training Homes for Watercress and Flower Girls. For years, the homes have cared for London’s orphaned and crippled flower girls, getting them off the streets. For Tilly, the appointment is a fresh start, a chance to leave her troubled past behind.

Soon after she arrives at the home, Tilly finds a notebook belonging to Flora Flynn. Hidden between the pages she finds dried flowers and a heartbreaking tale of loss and separation as Flora’s entries reveal how she never stopped looking for her lost sister. Tilly sets out to discover what happened to Rosie—but the search will not be easy. Full of twists and surprises, it leads the caring and determined young woman into unexpected places, including the depths of her own heart.

Print Length: 432 pages  
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (February 3, 2015)

Although I have it loaded on my Kindle, I have not gotten around to reading Hazel Gaynor's debut novel, The Girl Who Came Home: A Novel of the Titanic. I've now officially moved it up my to-read pile after being drawn into A Memory of Violets. Sweet, moving and thoughtful, A Memory of Violets is based on the history of the young girls struggling to stay alive and support their families with the small amounts they earned hawking flowers among the street traders in London's Covent Garden. It's the story of two sets of sisters--Irish immigrants Flora (Florrie), partially crippled from polio, and her younger sister Rosie, suffering from near blindness. Florrie promises her dying mother to take care of Rosie and her heart is broken when her sister is grabbed at the market and disappears. Florrie is taken in by preacher Albert Shaw and taught a trade--making beautiful, lifelike silk flowers at his Training Homes for Watercress and Flower Girls but she spends her life longing for and looking for Rosie. Thirty-six years later, Matilda (Tilly) Harper doesn't have a good relationship with her younger sister Esther--crippled in a riding accident that Tilly feels a deep guilt over. Wanting to distance herself from the guilt and her very distant and unloving mother, Tilly takes a position as an assistant housemother at Violet house, working with the orphaned and mostly disabled girls that work in Shaw's factory. In her room in Violet House, Tilly finds a box containing personal items and a diary written by Florrie. Caught up in Florrie's tragic story, Tilly wants to learn what Florrie never did and find out what happened to little Rosie. 

The story alternates between Florrie's and Tilly's points of view and moves back and forth in time telling each girl's story. I enjoyed the dual story telling--both characters were easy to attach to and to root for. Author Gaynor did a lot of research into her subject and it shows in the detailed capture of life in Victorian England. It was especially interesting to me to read the author's notes at the back of the book and learn about her inspiration for the character of Albert Shaw--based on the real life work of philanthropist John Groom and his work to support the watercress and flower sellers he encountered, helping them off of the streets and into a safe environment while learning a viable trade. The story was predictable at times but it did have some small twists, and the well-drawn characters and vivid descriptions kept me engaged. An enjoyable book, charming and an easy read that will appeal to historical fiction fans--especially lovers of British and Irish fiction.   

Author Notes: Hazel Gaynor is an author and freelance writer in Ireland and the U.K. and was the recipient of the Cecil Day Lewis Award for Emerging Writers in 2012. Originally from North Yorkshire, England, she now lives in Ireland with her husband, two young children, and an accident-prone cat. Find out more about Hazel at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

How could I not be inspired by either flowers or watercress for my dish representing A Memory of Violets? Much of the food within the book was simple fare--a warming bowl of soup, bread and butter, a cup of hot tea, the occasional pudding for dessert, or even the hot cross buns, lemonade and ham sandwiches sold by the street vendors. Before Rosie's disappearance, Albert Shaw encounters the sisters on the street and gives them a special ticket to get a hot drink and a slice of bread and butter in a "Club Room" set up to support the poor. It was the combination of London, watercress, and that comforting bread and butter that led me to tea sandwiches. 

When looking at tea sandwiches online, there were several recipes for watercress butter that caught my eye. I love compound butters--they add so much rich flavor to a dish--so I put together my version of Watercress Compound Butter. Spread on sliced bread and layered with watercress leaves and slices of cucumber, it makes a lovely little sandwich perfect for lunch or an afternoon tea. (Crusts removed of course!

Watercress Compound Butter
by Deb, Kahakai Kitchen inspired by this recipe and this recipe
(Makes about 2/3 cup of Butter)

1/2 cup good butter*--softened but not melted
1 1/2 cups fresh watercress leaves (remove larger stems--small stems are fine)
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 small pinch crushed red pepper flakes
sea salt* and black pepper to taste

Place ingredients in food processor and blend until smooth and creamy. Taste for seasoning. Place in bowl or container and let flavors meld for 20-30 minutes before using. Cover and refrigerate if not using right away but allow butter to come to room temperature and a spreadable consistency before using.

*Butter note: If using salted butter, taste before adding any additional salt.

Notes/Results: Watercress compound butter (to quote Martha Stewart) is a very good thing. The creamy butter slightly softens the peppery edge of the watercress and the lemon adds bright notes. It has great versatility--it was wonderful spread on grilled bread, made into little tea sandwiches--with cucumber and more cress leaves, and it was nothing short of amazing topping a piece of grilled salmon. I think my next use is going to be melting it over a baked potato. Use good butter--I used Kerrygold Irish butter in honor of Flora, Rosie and Tilly. Since I can readily get the salted kind in bulk at Costco, I just omitted adding any salt to the recipe. Definitely a make-again recipe for me. 

And to end a satisfying read, a cup of hot cocoa--a welcome treat and warming nourishment for the children selling their 'cress and flowers.

Note: A review copy of "A Memory of Violets" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.



  1. The book sounds good and the compound butter sounds even better!

  2. Charming is a perfect word for this book. I love these kinds of stories! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  3. Thanks Heather--it was a great story and I was happy to be on the tour. ;-)

  4. Both were very good Pam! ;-)

  5. I can't wait to read this. Her first book, The Girl Who Came Home was a wonderful read as well. I enjoy reading books where the stories go back and forth with the characters. Thanks for the review and the recipes.:)
    Carol L
    Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com

  6. Hi Carol, I am excited to read The Girl Who Came Home after reading A Memory of Violets and I am sure you will love this one too. ;-) Thanks for stopping by!


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