I spotted an odd coincidence the other week: I’ve read three books with the word ‘pomegranate’ in the title. It’s not a word (or a fruit) you encounter every day, and it has some interesting metaphorical and mythological connections with womanhood that are worth exploring. Here, then, are those three books and some things they have in common:
In this unusual travel memoir, novelist Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor, a budding writer herself, swap reflections on their travels to sites in Greece and France associated with the sacred feminine and wonder what kind of women they want to be. Taylor’s trip to Greece in college had been life-changing, even giving her the idea of becoming an ancient Greek scholar, but when she was rejected by her chosen graduate school it threw her for a loop and sparked a years-long depression that distanced her from her mother and her true self.
Meanwhile, Kidd had only written nonfiction at this point but longed to be a novelist and had initial plans for The Secret Life of Bees floating in her mind. She was able to reconnect with Taylor on this first trip to Greece, and bought them matching glass pomegranate charms to wear on necklaces as a salient reminder of the myth of Demeter rescuing her beloved daughter Persephone from the underworld. As they journeyed on to France looking for Black Madonna statues like the one at Rocamadour, both Kidd and Taylor turned secrets of the heart into wishes and promises expressed to the Goddess.
As they returned to South Carolina and Taylor prepared for marriage, Kidd transitioned from myth to fairy tales while pondering the turn of generations. The fact that Taylor wore Kidd’s old wedding dress only underscored for her that “The Young Woman inside has turned to go, but the Old Woman has not shown up.” All the same, she was going through menopause and having to adjust to a new relationship with her body. “Perhaps all mothers of daughters possess a secret talking mirror that announces when their young womanhood begins to fade and their daughters’ begin to blossom,” she muses. “As in the fairy tale, the experience can unleash a lacerating jealousy in some mothers.”
This is a book with vivid settings, carefully recreated scenes and dialogue, mythological echoes, and strong feminist themes. For both Kidd and Taylor, the struggle was to balance Hestia (a home life) with Athena or Joan of Arc (the intellect and sense of adventure). “I learned how easy it is to give up and become draperies while everyone else is dancing,” Taylor laments. For both her and her mother, these travels in search of the sacred feminine were all about finding inner courage and acting on creative urges despite fear.
(Taylor gives her mother the first and last word; initially she was going to write up their journeys by herself, but later enlisted her mother’s help to give the full story – or, being cynical, to have a big-name draw. It is a shame that Taylor hasn’t managed to write anything else in all this time given that her writing is nearly as good as her mother’s. I loved Kidd’s The Invention of Wings but still haven’t read Bees, her breakout novel, so this has whetted my appetite to finally pick that one up.)
I read this perhaps nine years ago now; it was one of the first books – along with A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas and Without a Map by Meredith Hall – that really turned me on to memoirs, now one of my very favorite genres, and got me thinking about illness and death and how we respond to these in writing. Gabriel, an Oxford journalist, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 44; her mother had died of the same disease at age 42, when Gabriel was a teenager. Two years before the diagnosis, Gabriel had genetic testing and discovered that she had an inherited mutation on the BRCA gene that made cancer nearly inevitable for her.
Exploring her past and chronicling the grueling treatment process she underwent while raising two small children, Gabriel looks for meaning and connections in a life-and-death struggle. Like Traveling with Pomegranates, this book weaves in the mythology surrounding Persephone and Demeter, bringing with it themes of abandonment and the hope of escaping the pull of the underworld.
I reviewed this debut novel for The Bookbag in April. As in the Kidd–Taylor book, themes of women’s identity and creative bravery come through strongly. The title refers not only to the book’s setting, the Spanish city of Granada (which literally means pomegranate), but also serves as a symbol for female fertility. Also, as Lamplugh revealed in my interview with her, “According to the Qu’ran, [the pomegranate] grows in the gardens of paradise” – which is important to the novel given the main character’s study of Islamic women’s history as well as her relationship with a Muslim man.
Q: When is a fruit not just a fruit?
A: When it has as many symbolic and mythological associations as the pomegranate.
Have you noticed odd little connections between books before, whether their titles or themes? Share them in the comments below!