The Light of Hidden Flowers by Jennifer Handford
Jennifer Hanford's newest novel is a tapestry of emotion woven together through multiple stories on themes of acceptance, bravery, and overcoming. At the center of The Light of Hidden Flowers is quiet Missy Fletcher, a whip-smart introvert who has lived a comfortable life safely in the shadow of her larger-than-life father. Financial planner by day, couch-bound Jeopardy! genius by night, Missy lives out her adventures online, planning glamorous trips across the world before her fear of flying makes her once again choose hometown normalcy. On the other end of the Internet is Joe Santelli, the high school sweetheart and love of her life whose picture-perfect marriage plays out in photos posted to social media. As reconnecting with Joe begins to remind her of how brave she once was – brave in love – Missy finds her world turned upside down when her indomitable father falls victim to Alzheimer’s. Thrown into a whirlwind sparked by a bequeathed letter, Missy faces her fears and travels to Italy, where an unexpected meeting with a new friend challenges her to step further into her own hero’s journey: namely India, and a life of saving lives. As Missy’s every fear is tested, she finds the courage to step outside her comfort zone both in life and in love.
The Light of Hidden Flowers is a special book in the realm of self-discovery fiction. Handford has a wonderful set of skills put to use in the novel form, from smart pacing to a delightful knack for metaphors and a great capacity for warmth. None of her characters feel contrived, most especially – and importantly – our protagonist. Missy is a relatable and deeply genuine character, flawed and humble and human in a particularly endearing way. In a culture that praises its extroverts and admonishes its introverts to “put themselves out there more”, Missy is a reminder of the admirable bravery it takes to be quiet in a loud world, to be openly scared and vulnerable and to still persevere. One of my favorite things about her is that while she does, of course, find herself transformed by her journey, she is not ultimately and radically changed. That’s to say, Missy’s introversion remains intact throughout her experiences – in her careful handling of her anxieties, in her devotion to paying attention, in her studiousness and her quietness. Her happy ending is not necessarily found in magically becoming an extrovert, but in learning to live her fullest life as an introvert. In this way, Missy’s personality doesn’t undergo the monumental Cinderella-style transformation of many introverts in literature – rather, her perspective does. In Missy, Handford illustrates the wisdom that our personal signature runs deep – but we will always have a chance to surprise ourselves.
Adding more richness to the novel are the layered stories of Joe, a war-worn vet whose marriage is ending, and his brilliant daughter Kate who’s fighting her own battle as the social scene of middle school threatens her fragile self-esteem. Each character comes alive with the realness of their struggles, and their inherent goodness has the reader cheering them on without fail. Handford explores the emotionality of each person’s unique inner-journey with a poignancy that simultaneously warms and opens the reader’s heart. We feel the ache of Missy’s heartbroken confusion and hurt at her father’s final wish that she “be brave”, as she reconciles her choices, craves her father’s approval and pride, and ultimately struggles to understand what bravery looks like through her own eyes. Likewise, Joe’s exploration of his feelings toward his ex-wife, toward his history and himself are all resonate as Handford turns several chapters over to his point of view. Equally heart-rending are the experiences Kate goes through as she struggles to find a glimmer of acceptance for herself in a society that rejects her if it pays her any attention at all.
The Light of Hidden Flowers reaches wonderful heights and invites readers on a rare, special journey to understand the power of compassion and the grace of hope. With lovely prose and no shortage of charm, this is a novel fit for compulsive reading, one that wraps the reader in a warm hug even as it encourages them to reach for seemingly impossible stars.