The Architect of Flowers is a stunning collection. Each story is like a brilliant dream, evanescent, yet managing to linger in all the senses long after the last page has been turned. It is a poetry of narrative rarely ever found in fiction. —Mary McGarry Morris, author of The Last Secret
You keep reading these stories waiting for a stable place for these human beings to inhabit. But they can’t be safely anywhere except in fables, where their meaning has already been determined. I loved that effect, but despite all the beauties of style, it’s not especially comforting and isn’t meant to be. This book is an amazing accomplishment, very complex and exceptionally beautiful, but also unnerving, like a beautiful painting by Goya that can still give you the willies. —Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love
The stories in William Lychack’s startling collection, The Architect of Flowers, are rife with quiet epiphanies and devastating betrayals. In heart-rending, gorgeous prose, each mines the grace and brutality of everyday life and leaves the reader slightly rearranged, and better for it. Lychack is a truly original writer. —Kate Walbert, author of A Short History of Women
William Lychack moves with equal ease between fabulism and realism as he conjures up his alluring characters, their troubles and delights. The resulting stories are precise, exhilarating, sometimes wonderfully funny and always beautiful. —Margot Livesey, author of House on Fortune Street
Deceptively simple stories about ‘ordinary’ working class characters. [Lychack] brings them to life with tiny insights and dazzling images he seems to exhale into every line. I was hooked by the title story…wishing it would roll on and on. —Dave Cullen, author of Columbine
Derek Walcott says he writes verse in the hope of writing poetry. Something similar might be said about the fiction in William Lychack's, The Architect of Flowers. The prose rises to a level of intense lyricism that distinguishes this lovely, artful collection. —Stuart Dybek, author of I Sailed with Magellan
Oh, what beautiful stories. They take me back to my childhood…the warmth and realistic children are wonderful. I well recall The Wasp Eater. Please keep writing! —Clive Cussler, author of Raise The Titanic!
Skillfully written and absorbing, these stories frequently defy description and rarely proceed smoothly from point A to point B. —Jim Coan, LIbrary Journal
Bleak but sometimes funny tales show Lychack’s (The Wasp Eater, 2004) knack for ellipses,pushing readers to fill in deliberate narrative and stylistic omissions. The book opens with “Stolpestad,” perhaps the most brutal story in a collection that doesn’t shy away from desolation. Other pieces cover an impressive range of emotional and imaginative territory: A woman buys chicks in the hope of raising chickens and getting fresh eggs only to find herself engaged in a perverse struggle with a mostly male brood and her skeptical husband; a couple’s quest for help butchering the deer they strike with their car reveals their own emotional wounds. Narratives combine to illuminate a rural, small-town world where women phone the American Legion or Elks halls to call drunk husbands home, and where damaged characters gaze on one another with wantonness, judgment and need. The moods are many and varied: There’s the sad reverie of an old woman visiting family following the death of her husband; the melancholy prophecy of a plant hybridizer’s wife anticipating his death; and a fabulist triptych, about a beloved teacher who comes from the sea, that touches on themes of loss, transformation and transcendence. The disciplined storytelling and barbed wit strike a fine balance. —Kirkus Reviews
The Architect of Flowers by William Lychack is a collection of stories that are stark, naked and downright chilling. The disc opens with a yarn about a small town policeman who grapples with the decision to shoot a family’s injure dog. Further along, there’s a geriatric woman who teaches a crow to steal for her and in one of the book’s most poignant pieces, a hybridizer’s wife, who discovers the perfect lie to bring her family back together again. Ostensibly a collection of stories centered around grief and the unending search for solace, it’s a rare and inimitable work and easily Lychack’s best prose to date. —Greg Robson, residentmediapundit.com
Q: What is your favorite books/or collections of recent times? A: Stuff from former students. Bill Lychack, from a class at Connecticut College, has a new one, The Architect of Flowers, and I got a glimpse of part of that book and it’s great. —James Robison, author of Rumor and Other Stories
The small failings between parents and children, the long-held secrets in married lives, the darkening of old age interrupted unexpected flashes of hope: with the hand of a master, William Lychack searches out the ignored moments of ordinary life and burnishes them into treasures. This collection is a treasury. I loved it. —Vestal McIntyre, author of Lake Overdrive
New York Journal of Books, March 23, 2011
The Architect of Flowers
Reviewed by Charles Holdefer | Released: March 23, 2011
Publisher: Mariner Books (196 pages)
Frequently, in reference to short fiction, “the well-crafted story” can be a sort of damning praise. It implies a tidy little construction, perhaps something that critiques well in a classroom or writing group, especially among readers who like to use words like “critique.” For other readers, it marks the limits of a certain kind of literary fiction. It’s hard to get excited about “tidy.” You can’t make a meal on a bon-bon.
William Lychack’s first collection of stories, The Architect of Flowers, which follows his well-received debut novel, The Wasp Eater, is proof that such ideas are too reductive. It is full of well-crafted stories—there is not a lazy sentence in this book—but it is decidedly not “tidy.” Lychack evokes a world that is mysterious, sometimes wonderful, and sometimes downright frightening.
Most of the stories are set in the American Northeast and recount highly personalized struggles of individuals (a solitary boy, a horticulturalist, a lonely wife) against larger, indifferent forces. The opening story, “Stolpestad,” is a harrowing and fairly representative tale of a small-town cop whose good-faith efforts prove woefully insufficient. “Griswald” tells in an unsensational fashion about the troubling ambiguity of a possible case of pedophilia. Fortunately, though, Lychack doesn’t settle for a too-easy naturalism that systematically swats down his characters like so many flies. Other stories, like “The Ghostwriter,” address the wonder of life, its sometimes uncanny beauty, the “glimmer of what it’s like when what you believe and what you do are one and the same thing.”
Lychack is wary of perceptions which are dulled by habit, and infuses this sense of wonder into everyday life. “Thin Edge of the Wedge” captures this sentiment well:
“All seemed incredible, the things of the world, and sometimes it was all a boy could do to believe that a fish breathed water, or that a butterfly flew all the way from Mexico, or that water froze into ice, or any of the seemingly endless miracles of the universe. Everything, if you looked closely enough, was a mystery. The most normal things, the most obvious things in the world, the things we took most for granted, often these were the most impossible, the most mysterious.”
Lychack is particularly preoccupied with family and how the past is artfully reconstructed by memory. “Love is a Temper” begins as a fairly conventional immigrant story but by the end it reaches much further, and becomes a meditation on the process of creation. The title novella, “The Architect of Flowers,” explores similar themes, depicting a troubled family from multiple points of view. It is an unflattering portrait that manages at the same time to be sympathetic to the flawed characters’ needs, and achieves a psychological authority as fine as William Trevor’s.
Stylistically, though, Lychack is more keen on metaphor than a sober writer like Trevor; he describes “air thick as a towel over your mouth” or a “house so quiet you could hear the clock chewing minutes the way an insect chews a leaf.” The best of his images linger in the mind long after the specific details of a story have been forgotten. He also enjoys unconventional syntax, chopping off the subjects of sentences, and shifts in narrative, including the use of a second person narrator.
In stories like “Stolpestad” and “Thin Edge of the Wedge,” the play of pronouns and other verbal gymnastics succeed well, because they contribute to a larger purpose in the story. In “Like a Demon,” however, the style seems mannered and in service of an ersatz edginess. It feels more as if the style itself is the purpose of the story.
Fortunately, this example is an exception, and most of these 13 stories are very strong, though one might argue that “The Old Woman and Her Thief” and “A Stand of Fables,” which embrace a fairy tale genre, are a bit out of place here and might belong in another collection devoted entirely to this vein.
Still, The Architect of Flowers is consistently rewarding for its restless search for possibility, for the author’s willingness to take risks and jettison the illusion of narrative authority without reducing his stories to postmodern smarty-games. He suggests that how we construct what is real is provisional and a matter of groping, but it is a necessary struggle for the preservation of anything worthwhile.
This book is an artful incarnation of that sentiment. Lychack doesn’t settle for literary bon-bons. His well-crafted stories make a rich and satisfying meal.
Reviewer Charles Holdefer’s most recent novel is The Contractor. He teaches in the English Department of the University of Poitiers, France.