With their father recently dead and their mother in a permanent vegetative state, just paying rent is a challenge for sisters Kate and Mary. Kate is graduating this year, and has dreams that extend out of El Paso—she’s applied to Stanford, though everyone expects her to stay home and attend UTEP (University of Texas at El Paso for all you non-Texan folks), marry her long-term boyfriend Simon, and look after her sister and mother. Mary just wants to be able to paint, wherever she is. But their father’s retirement money is running out fast, and their lease from the church is too, with a new minister ready to move in. Something has to be done, and soon.
The blurb on the inside flap of Irises touts an intense romantic subplot, one for each of the sisters: Kate, torn between the new minister Reverend Andy Soto and good old Simon, who has proposed and will offer much-needed stability for the family with the restaurant he owns; Mary drawn to Marcos, but conflicted as, well, he’s in a gang and sort of sketchy. Most of Mary’s subplot felt as canned as the inner flap would suggest; it feels unnatural, as though the author decided each sister should have a man in her life and threw in someone for Mary halfheartedly. Marcos isn’t present in Mary’s life at all until partway into the book. He just suddenly shows up and with him come issues for Mary that seem a bit out character. For instance, with the arrival of Marcos readers learn that Mary is normally cold and hard around boys, even though we’ve only seen her be warm and kind with everyone else. And apparently she has a problem with dating while in high school? Where did all this come from? None of her issues are really resolved, either, contributing to the tacked-on, half-hearted feel of Mary’s romance.
Irises is in general much stronger where Kate is concerned. I can definitely see Reverend Andy Soto’s appeal—he’s a little older, but he is the only one who supports her dreams, feeding her ambition and opening her eyes to possibilities others in her life would never suggest. Andy becomes Kate’s confidant, and his non-traditional approach of leaving God out of the equation ends up bringing her closer to the faith she’s left behind. Andy is also one of the few characters who I thought responded to Kate’s Stanford announcement in a reasonable way. I mean, the way her Aunt Julia reacts, you’d think Kate just suggested they sell Mary to the circus. There is no consideration for Kate’s feelings, even though the fact that Kate’s mother—her aunt’s sister—suggested Stanford in the first place (and almost went!) makes it seem less like a family thing and more like a funky plot thing. Half of the characters support Kate, half do not at all. Maybe I lack perspective, not being a first-generation college hopeful, but the complete divide between the two opinions with no middle-ground didn’t strike me as seeming realistic.
Overall, Irises is a pretty pleasant read. The dialogue is great, and Stork is a master of subtly (when not, you know, entirely leaving out explanations, such as Mary’s deal with boys) and avoids the info-dump passages that can drag books down like the stones in Virginia Woolf’s pockets. Still, Irises suffers from what I just now decided to name Excessive Setback Syndrome (please, please tweet me if you have a better name for this). ESS is characterized by the plot piling on minor issue after minor issue onto the protagonist. And although the characters are all freaking out, the reader sighs in defeat, because while these “problems” keep coming up, nothing bad ever happens. Often symptoms include perpetually anxious characters and issues being blown way out of proportion while simple solutions sit by and twiddle their nonexistent thumbs.
Though labeled for grades nine and up, I’d widen that to include middle schoolers. Irises is a decent read: tame (the romance frustratingly so), and family-friendly. The most controversial thing, I think, is the heavy Christian focus, which seems at times out-of-place and deliberate. Three stars, then, and a recommendation that will only extend as far as your local library.
Kat Alexander is a Figment Reviewer who (clearly) loves to read and comment. She’s active on a number of sites including NaNo, Fiction Press, and FanFiction under aneko24.