In Sarah Haywood’s debut novel, The Cactus, the prickly plant resembles its owner and her eventual bloom. A romantic comedy with a side tour of sibling rivalry, the story has a middle-aged single woman narrating her story with the somewhat stilted and obsessive voice of a control freak. Susan doesn’t just carefully arrange her cactus plants, align her pencils, and straighten the papers on her desk; she confines herself to a regimented life to avoid unnecessary emotions.
When Susan’s mother dies and leaves the family home to her forty year old brother Edward, she decides to fight the will, and remains unwilling to allow her good-for-nothing jobless brother to stay in the house, despite her mother’s wishes. Into her ordered life comes a surprise pregnancy. At forty-five, she decides to keep the baby but forego the marriage proposal from the equally socially impaired father. The story evolves into her growing sensibility, with new friends, a new outlook on life, and a surprise in her ancestry.
Do you remember the old movie “Cactus Flower,” adapted from the Broadway stage for Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn? I had thought this book might have the same farcical approach, with the cactus as symbolic. In Heywood’s story, just as in the Hollywood movie, the cactus finally blooms with lives improved at the end, but the book has fewer laughs and more anxiety. The story is a fast read with a happy ending. You might even see a few characters resembling people you know between the pages.