This is another instance of starting a book then forgetting about it for a year.
I suggested The Moonflower Vine for my bookstore bookclub last September. I read the first 60 pages or so then either got distracted or lost interest (can't remember anymore). I dug it back out and finished it eleven months later in an attempt to decrease the number of half-finished book languishing around the house.
The Moonflower Vine is the only novel published by Jetta Carleton, surprising in that she had a successful career as a radio and television copywriter then later operated a successful publishing house, The Lightning Tree. The Moonflower Vine was out-of-print until Jane Smiley commented on the novel in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel leading HarperPerennial to release a new edition of The Moonflower Vine.
Although largely autobiographical, The Moonflower Vine doesn't have a tight narrative; the story is actually created by a set of vignettes, each narrated from the point-of-view of one of the Soames family members. The first section, which is also the "modern" segment, is narrated from the vantage of the youngest daughter Mary Jo, modeled on Jetta herself. It tells the story of a single day in the Soames family, busy with cooking, celebration, family. The next segments jump back into the family history, explaining why each of the three other daughters - Jessica, Leonie, and Mathy - and parents Callie and Matthew behave as they do. Education is important in the Soames family, as is good work and avoiding idleness. Carleton's writing shows a love for her rural Missouri setting; the most lush description is reserved for scenes where the sisters are enjoying the outdoors. The Moonflower Vine is also like a time capsule, describing a time and place in middle America where the school principal might still farm his own land, too.
I am so glad I went back and finished The Moonflower Vine - this is not a novel to be missed and definitely not one to speed read.