A Fall of Marigolds

This beautiful novel weaves together two stories from vastly different time periods. One is that of modern Taryn, a single Mom, who works at a high-end fabric store in Manhattan that specializes in matching rare fabrics. The other is Clara’s story about working as a nurse with infectious disease patients on Ellis Island in 1911.

Both women have experienced deep tragedies.Taryn lost her husband in the World Trade Bombings of 2001. A special fabric assignment made her late to a Windows on the World restaurant breakfast with her husband who worked in one of the towers. He died. She survived, thanks to a the scarf that is featured in the title, a beautiful scarf more than a hundred years old that Clara also wore on Ellis Island.

Throughout her life Clara had been spunky. As a teenager she helped her dad in his doctor’s office and unlike her mother and sister, could handle even the bloodiest patrons, and the most horrific sick room scenes.  Unlike many young women of her time, she traveled far from home for a job, first working in Manhattan for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

There she fell in love with the accountant and they agreed to meet on the 9th floor for a tour on the day of the terrible fire where many employees, who had been locked in the building, jumped to their deaths to escape worse deaths by fire.  Unfortunately, the young accountant was one of those who died tragically, and on the street right before Clara’s eyes.

After that she accepted a job with immigrants on Ellis Island, and did not leave the island for over six months.  Her roommate Dolly, a perky, adventuresome woman, invites Clara to join the other nurses for Saturday night dances in Manhattan or at the Jersey Shore. But Clara never goes, nor leaves the island for any other reason.

Clara is stuck, hideously stuck but does not know it. She is caught in the aftermath of the tragedy she witnessed. She also has fantasized a deep love for the accountant whom she only knew for two weeks and never dated.

One day a man comes to Ellis Island. Clara notices him because of the bright woman’s scarf that he wears around her neck. They immediately bond, because he just lost a loved one too, his wife who died of scarlet fever on the journey.

Mr. Gwynn asks Clara for a favor—to get his pattern book from his suitcase because he is a tailor, and desperately needs it to make a living in New York. He worries that it will be stolen from his suitcase. Although it is not allowed, Clara agrees and in the process discovers something about his wife that he does not know.

She is deeply drawn to Mr. Gwynn although not necessarily in a romantic way. At the same time, a new intern takes a fancy for Clara and invites her to meet him for a book discussion. She chooses poetry because she discovered a book by John Keats in Mrs. Gwynn’s luggage.

Both Taryn and Clara’s stories are resolved in a compelling fashion. Of course, the bright orange scarf with marigolds figures into the ending as does a key, a detective, and a room rented by Mr. Gwynn’s dead wife. This emotional, character-rich book draws you in. The Ellis Island setting provides many fascinating details about life in old New York and many interesting facts about medical care at the turn of the last century.

For another take on a historical New York novel that focuses on medicine read Mary Keane’s Fever. It gives a fictional account of the infamous Typhoid Mary who infected many people with the awful disease about a hundred years ago.