From having a toddler watch a flock of birds attempt to resuscitate one of their fallen brethren to a father mowing around dandelion islands of lawn weeds out of paternal love, the chapbook The Mistake Tea Can Sometimes Make (click the title to buy) by Brittany D. Clark and from ELJ Publications confronts the odd and mundane of familial life. In this novella, Clark blends the poetic subtlety of flash fiction into a novella form. Arranged around a series of short vignettes, many of which have been and could be published as singular stories, the narrative follows the promising life of Julia Carlton, a child prodigy who for multiple, cascading reasons ends up a college dropout and stay at home mom in her dead end home town. To say dead end is not an exaggeration, for Douglass rests at the terminal end of a long New Jersey road. One way in, one way out, and a place founded by man who was at the end of his personal rope.
Julia, a woman who steamrolls forward, falls in love during college, dropping out to marry Eric Gardner. The two raise Benjamin, a child who can glean French from language CD’s, who detests sushi, and finds himself at MIT at age sixteen. Benjamin rests as the centerpiece of the novella’s action. Julia, once taken to reading tea leaves, becomes terrified of her life’s stasis while all the while attempting to raise a child worthy of her once promising life’s work. She wants to give him everything, looking toward the future, eliding over the past. Success eludes her, for she fails to stop, to read the tea leaves for what they are.
Beyond the familial discourse, the town of Douglass comes to life, first through Julia and the Gardner family’s stories, but then through the town newspaper. Clark intersperses the narrative with news updates, advancing time and space, while inserting culture. Alerting us to oddities, the movements of hunters and birds, and in the process letting her creation live and breathe. In the end, you will read this chapbook in a single sitting before turning to the front cover to read it once more.
- “As she lay there, aware of her failures, her exposed body seemed all at once to lurch towards something” (17).
- “He let the rest hang there in the stale air, absorbing all the years of waste and confusion until there was nothing left but a breeze”(42).
- “He would cut the yard around patches of the flowering plant, creating islands Julia would soon run to with her gardening sheers, cutting the few blades to match the freshly cut grassy waters around them” (3).
- “They fluttered as Julia said, ‘like a heart murmur.’ She came up with this metaphor when one of the semi-trucks pushed straight into one of the birds” (21).
- “It wasn’t because their families didn’t have the money; Julia liked these kinds of projects, and Eric liked making Julia happy” (14).