Title: Learning to Talk to Plants
Author: Marta Orriols
Translated by Mara Faye Lethem
Describe the book in one word: Moving
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Release date: 3rd September 2020
Paula’s partner has died in a car accident – but no one knows her true grief. Only hours before his death, Mauro revealed that he was leaving her for another woman.
Paula guards this secret and ploughs on with her job as a paediatrician in Barcelona, trying to maintain the outline of their old life. But all Mauro’s plants are dying, the fridge only contains expired yoghurt, and her mind feverishly obsesses over this other, unknown woman.
As the weeks pass, vitality returns to Paula in unexpected ways. She remembers, slowly, how to live. By turns devastating and darkly funny, Learning to Talk to Plants is a piercingly honest portrayal of grief – and of the many ways to lose someone.
As soon as I learnt of this books’ existence (back in July 2020 perhaps), I knew I wanted to read it. I knew it was about grief, and I had heard so many good things!
For me, the book was a slow burn initially, but I liked it. I wanted to get to know Paula and I think it is intentionally slow because that’s how grief gets you. You do not pick the pace when you are mourning or grieving, there are unexpected twists, turns, and feelings along the way.
A lot of the narrative looks at Paula’s internal battle with her feelings, or at least, that is my perspective. I am on her side and I am rooting for her, whatever she needs, I am with it. And, for me, in my opinion, this is reflective of the grieving process, one day you feel fine, then out of nowhere you get a flashback to a happier time or you catch a familiar scent, whatever it may be, days, weeks, or even months later, and you’re back where you were, lost in your thoughts. Maybe even shedding a tear because the memory surfaces so intensely, it is as if you are back there, in the moment, with that person.
It is interesting that Paula is a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) nurse. I say this because caregivers are known in some instances to put other people first, above themselves and their needs, regardless of the personal cost. I think focusing on the needs of tiny sick babies helps Paula to work through things in her own way. I don’t know if it is the healthiest way to deal with it, I think in the UK we would push a talking therapy, but you can only talk about grief and indeed process something traumatic when you are ready to.
The book raised some great questions: why do we apologise for our grief? Like we are making other people feel uncomfortable when in this instance, they were being overbearing and insensitive (you will know what I mean when you read the book). Why do we (as women) apologise for ourselves? Our behaviour? Can grief be freeing or is it a trap in itself? How is grief a shared experience and yet deeply personal at the same time?
I loved the way Paula and her father’s relationship was explored and delicately unpackaged. As I read the book, I had one opinion of him, but by the end, my opinion had changed. And it made me think about the places we go to fix ourselves and the processes that we go through. Is there a place you go to rest and recuperate? Has it changed as you have gotten older? The people we seek out for comfort, and those we avoid. It is such an interesting book about grief in its entirety.
And guilt. It would be impossible to talk about this book without talking about guilt. And I suppose I have never really considered the link between grief and guilt, but it is there. I am sure of it. Especially when someone passes suddenly or unexpectedly because there could be things left unsaid that never get said, but perhaps should be. It is up to the person who is left behind to make peace with everything themselves, which I think is a big ask. How often are we truly kind and forgiving of ourselves?
The underlying narrative for me was about the stages of grief, relationships, choices, behaviours, accountability (on some level), love (of other people and ourselves) and finding new ways forward. Grief is such a personal experience, but something we all go through, much like death. We will all meet our maker ultimately. I think it’s very hard to describe or talk about grief, in my experience we ask how people are, how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, but have you ever asked someone to describe their grieving process? It is maybe not the done thing, not the right approach.
Yet somehow, Marta Orriols manages to capture it beautifully and explain it in a light way. I do not mean that she makes light of it, what I mean is that I really went on a journey with Paula and I felt lighter at the end, as I am sure she did. I would also like to add that the twist right at the end – wow! I did not see it coming and it made me rethink everything. It was unexpected and part enlightening, part devastating.
I thoroughly enjoyed Learning to Talk to Plants by Marta Orriols and highly recommend it. For me, it was the slow burn I needed to really process the book and enjoy it. Thank you to Pushkin Press for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.