Charlotte Mendelson’s “Rhapsody in Green” Celebrates Obsession with Joys of Imperfect Gardening

Essayist for The New Yorker talks about her first nonfiction title out in re-print this month

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UK to the World – “If you are a frustrated enthusiast-in-waiting,” novelist Charlotte Mendelson writes in the Guardian, “with only a tiny growing space, or nothing at all; if other people’s gardens, let alone gardening books, intimidate you; or if your only interest in plants is in eating them, you are not alone…”

Thus Mendelson, a writer known well for her musings in The New Yorker, identifies her ideal reader for her first and, as she jokes, “probably my last,” non-fiction book, Rhapsody in Green: A Writer, An Obsession, A Laughably Small Excuse for a Garden. This title, her quirky homage to growing for eating, and a departure from her usual storytelling by way of fiction, debuts in trade paper version this month.

“This is my confession,” Mendelson continues, “my comically small town garden, a mere six square metres of urban soil and a few pots, is not a scented idyll of rambling roses, or an elegant, if overstyled, space in which to drink prosecco. It is a larder in which I grow more than 100 things to eat, including, in an ordinary year, eight or nine types of tomato; five varieties of kale; three kinds of raspberry, red and gold; various sorrels; globe, Jerusalem and Chinese artichokes; 10 kinds of lettuce and chicory, and another 10 of Asian greens; seven or eight types of climbing bean, mostly Italian; about 50 herbs and a few flowers, all edible. I make salads with 20 or 30 different leaves; and I harvest, sometimes by the teaspoonful, juneberries, wild strawberries, tame strawberries, blackberries, wineberries, blueberries, loganberries, gooseberries, cherries, grapes, rhubarb, apples, figs, quinces and every conceivable currant.”

Author Charlotte Mendelson reads from her latest novel Almost English (Youtube video from her web site)

Since acquiring her dream home in the UK with beloved scrappy growing space, Mendelson has accomplished a bucket list item of sorts via this ongoing garden re-do. Starting to bring a small and forgotten patio-ish garden with some adjoining planting space under her control became a personal challenge the likes of which she’d never expected. Undaunted, she freely admits a kind of “addiction” to all things garden.

“It’s a portrait of tragic obsession,” she jokes on her Rhapsody in Green web site, “how a woman with a laughably tiny garden, no knowledge and absurdly high hopes became slave to an urban jungle… It’s my garden: come in. Try not to laugh…”

In her book, Mendelson makes tongue-in-cheek report of otherwise routine matters of life in the garden that have become, for her, obsessions. Her descriptions of attempts at slug control, discouragement of encampment of feral cats, and remedies for other challenges that fall outside the usual and customary are laugh-out-loud funny. We’re immediately drawn in to her details about the care and management of various plants, and we’re easily along for the ride with her as she comes up to speed as a gardener who loves to grow food. Not flowers. Just food. This is what makes Charlotte Mendelson, the novelist-turned-urban gardener, tick- a thing that is funny, in and of itself…

Taking her attention away from work on her new novel, Mendelson graciously shared some time with me via email to “talk” about gardening, the writing life, and current release of Rhapsody in Green in new form.

Novelist and author of Rhapsody In Green Charlotte Mendelson

MC for Splash: You say in your book Rhapsody in Green that growing flowers is of little interest to you (paraphrasing), ie you love to grow to eat. Do you think you are called to be a vegetable gardener only because you love to eat (assumed from your statements in your book) or because of a deep-seated need to be able to not only provide food for yourself, but do it in such an enterprising (and delightfully thrifty and creative!) way?

Author CM: I think my main motivation is greed – I’ve always been a nibbler of leaves and sniffer of fruit, and passionate about food and cooking, so growing herbs and beans was an obvious next step. But, like all grandchildren of refugees, I have a gripping fear of food insecurity, and it’s extremely soothing to know that I could, at least, grow a little to sustain my (teenage, uninterested) young.

MC for Splash: Some of us share that insecurity; I’m noting that, particularly while writing on spec, concern about eating and needing to know there is- or will be- some kind of food in the house can be a concerning form of writing distraction that can look like food “addiction.” In Rhapsody in Green, you actually refer to your relationship with your gardening as “addiction,” in that context an amusing and neat play on words. Would you please talk a bit about how your love for acquiring seeds- and/or related items- has recently trumped any other social or other activities. It’s quite fun!

Author CM: Yes, the addiction is a big problem. When my daughter was little she tried to prevent me physically from buying even more seeds and, when I broke free, she said sadly ‘well, waste money wisely’. I just bought ten tiny weak seedlings at a plant sale. It’s completely impossible to resist…there’s always the potential for the best tomato, a glut of basil, more raspberries than you can eat.

MC for Splash: Your self-deprecating humor and wry wit are just so enjoyable. Where do you think your sense of humor comes from? In Rhapsody in Green you share a bit early-on about your family, specifically, about your father (costume dressing to shock the neighbors, etc.- lovely!). Do you think you got your sense of humor and whimsy from him?

Author CM: Thank you so much; I’m very glad to hear it. From both my parents; my father and I have a very similar silliness, love of the ridiculous, interest in word-play, and I was brought up on Mel Brooks and Tom Lehrer, as well as MAD magazine, so there’s a lot of American humour there too. But my mother and her parents contributed too, in terms of witty, often sharp, descriptions of people. And, sadly, I am a terrible giggler on both sides.

MC for Splash: When will you be visiting us in the Bay Area of California so you can go to all of the garden shows and farm & garden events here?

Author CM: I’d absolutely love to; I once drove from Albuquerque to San Francisco, then returned to California in 2007 with the Jewish Book Prize, but haven’t had an excuse to return. But I liked it enormously and would kill to go around/north of San Francisco. I would LOVE to do, frankly, all of those events. Even the words “gardening events” thrill me…

MC for Splash: That reminds me: You were involved in Jewish Book Week last year. What was that like for you? Did it inform your work after the experience?

Author CM: It was fascinating; I completely loved it. I spent a lot of my childhood in America (Boston, Philadelphia, North Carolina, New Jersey, lots of other places more briefly, in a constant state of astonishment at the exciting food and television), so feel very comfortable there and, as a Jew, I always felt more relaxed in my Jewishness in the US. My hand gestures grow more expansive… The discovery of Jewish Community Centres was a revelation, and meeting other Jewish people was very moving, because I grew up knowing hardly any.

MC for Splash: Totally love your humor! Back to your fiction: Your first novel (2001) was titled Love in Idleness– also a name for a particular type of pansy, pretty perfect irony for an author who grows only vegetables! Your second novel (2003), Daughters of Jerusalem, with a seemingly Biblical title reference has been described by FORWARD as “This exuberantly brilliant novel by one of Britain’s most exciting writers…British Jewry has finally gotten its own sprawling Jewish family novel. More delightfully, like the best fiction, it is universal.” Can you talk about that and the books that came after?

Author CM: Hmm, well, Daughters of Jerusalem is about growing up in Oxford (England), so it was cathartic, and also very amusing to write. Oxford is like any university town, but much more so: absolutely full of very intelligent, very odd people. When We Were Bad, my third novel, was shortlisted for a major prize and, although it’s about Jews it’s probably the one for which I had to do most research. Almost English was also longlisted for the Booker Prize, which was very exciting; it’s about a family of Hungarian/Czechs and so is very embedded in being a refugee, immigrant, foreign family – which, again, the US is much more comfortable with, in real life as well as in fiction, than is the UK.

MC for Splash: We could talk for hours about those stories; important. I hope we can talk again! Coming back to Rhapsody in Green, which is reprinted this month, and the gardening life: you’ve done so well with such a small gardening space and producing so many different kinds of things. Any gardening tips to share with our readers?

Author MC: My top gardening tips: tomatoes- small varieties are fine outside in containers; beans- grow purple and yellow varieties, easier to find among the leaves; pot marigold/calendula for the pollinators; wild/alpine strawberries are a delight; and the best/most entertaining vegetable of all to grow is Tromboncino, the hilariously-shaped huge-leafed wildly-productive Italian summer squash, which is so much better than zucchini.

MC for Splash: Those sound amazing! Thank you on behalf of all of our gardener readers out there. In addition to amusement and pure reading enjoyment, what would you like your readers to have as take-away’s from your book Rhapsody in Green: A Writer, An Obsession, and A Laughably Small Excuse for a Garden?

Author CM: I’d love the (gardening) obsessed to sympathise, the innocent to become addicted, the nervous/guilt-stricken to feel more confident and readers who have no interest in gardening to be amused and engaged and…read all my novels.

MC for Splash: Done! Now, as for your fans and readers who need to know: Any tips on what’s coming up next from you?

Author CM: Hmm…well, my new novel will be out next year; it’s so new I haven’t worked out how to describe it yet, but it’s been a long time in the writing. The writing for The New Yorker continues, and I have a smart, almost American-author-level, new website, so look me up on that, read some more and say hello. I love meeting my readers, and fellow gardeners are a delight.

MC for Splash: Wonderful! A pleasure- and thank you so much for your time!

Author CM: Thank you so much for these interesting entertaining questions, and I wish we could have a lonnnnng conversation about Italian tomato-growing techniques…

Hopefully, we’ll have more conversations with novelist/essayist Charlotte Mendelson to stay up to date with her new project in the works, as well her gardening (mis)adventures! In the meantime, please visit her web site here: https://www.charlottemendelson.com/.

Text ゥMichele Caprario Images: Book Cover- Publicist Author- Liz Searle/Guardian and used with permission

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Kyle Books (June 1, 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 240 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0857839470
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0857839473
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 7.6 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5 x 0.9 x 7.75 inches
About Michele Caprario 62 Articles
Michele Caprario is a writer and editor covering great people, projects, and things that bring goodness to the world.

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