13 reviews

The Violets of March: A Novel
by Sarah Jio

Published: 2011-04-26
Paperback : 304 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 10 of 13 members
A heartbroken woman stumbled upon a diary and steps into the life of its anonymous author.

In her twenties, Emily Wilson was on top of the world: she had a bestselling novel, a husband plucked from the pages of GQ, and a one-way ticket to happily ever after.

Ten years later, the tide ...
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A heartbroken woman stumbled upon a diary and steps into the life of its anonymous author.

In her twenties, Emily Wilson was on top of the world: she had a bestselling novel, a husband plucked from the pages of GQ, and a one-way ticket to happily ever after.

Ten years later, the tide has turned on Emily's good fortune. So when her great-aunt Bee invites her to spend the month of March on Bainbridge Island in Washington State, Emily accepts, longing to be healed by the sea. Researching her next book, Emily discovers a red velvet diary, dated 1943, whose contents reveal startling connections to her own life.

A mesmerizing debut with an idyllic setting and intriguing dual story line, The Violets of March announces Sarah Jio as a writer to watch.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


Bee. I could picture her immediately at her Bainbridge Island kitchen table. For every day I have known her, she has eaten the same breakfast: sourdough toast with butter and whipped honey. She slices the toasted golden-brown bread into four small squares and places them on a paper towel she has folded in half. A generous smear of softened butter goes on each piece, as thick as frosting on a cupcake, which is then topped by four good-sized dollops of whipped honey. As a child, I watched her do this hundreds of times, and now, when I’m sick, sourdough toast with butter and honey is like medicine.

Bee isn’t a beautiful woman. She towers above most men--with a face that is somehow too wide, shoulders too large, teeth too big. Yet the black-and-white photos of her youth reveal a spark of something, a certain prettiness that all women have in their twenties.

I used to love a particular photo of her at just that age, which hung in a seashell-covered frame high on the wall in the hallway of my childhood home, hardly in a place of honor, as one had to stand on a stepstool to see it clearly. The black-and-white photo depicted a Bee I’d never known. Seated with a group of friends on a beach blanket, she appeared carefree and smiled seductively. Another woman leaned in close to her, whispering in her ear. A secret. Bee clutched a string of pearls that dangled from her neck and gazed at the camera in a way I’d never witnessed her look at Uncle Bill. I wondered who stood behind the lens that day so many years ago.

“What did she say?” I asked my mother one day as a child, peering up at the photograph.

Mom didn’t look up from the laundry she was wrestling with in the hallway. “What did who say?”

I pointed to the woman next to Bee. “The pretty lady whispering in aunt Bee’s ear.”

Mom immediately stood up and walked to my side. She reached up and wiped away the dust on the glass frame with the corner of her sweater. “We’ll never know,” she said, her regret palpable as she regarded the photo.

My mother’s late uncle, Bill, was a handsome World War II hero. Everybody said he married Bee for her money, but it’s a theory that didn’t hold weight with me. I saw the way he kissed her, the way he’d wrapped his arms around her waist during those summers of my childhood. He loved her; there was no doubt of that.

Even so, I knew by the way my mother talked that she disapproved of their relationship, that she believed Bill could have done better for himself. Bee, in her mind, was too unconventional, too un-ladylike, too brash, too everything.

Yet we kept coming to visit Bee, summer after summer. Even after Uncle Bill died when I was 9. The place was kind of ethereal with the seagulls flying overhead, the sprawling gardens, the smell of the Sound, the big kitchen with its windows facing out to the gray water, the haunting hum of the waves crashing on the shore. My sister and I loved it, and even despite my mother’s feelings about Bee, I know she loved the place too. It had a tranquilizing effect, on all of us.

Annabelle gave me a knowing look. “You do have a story in there, don’t you,” she said.”

I sighed. “Maybe,” I said, noncommittally.”

“Why don’t you take a trip,” she suggested. ”You need to get away, to clear your head for a while.”

I scrunched up my nose at the idea. “Where would I go?”

“Somewhere far away from here.”

She was right. The Big Apple was a fair-weather friend. The city loved you when you’re flying high and kicked you when you’re down.

“Will you come with me?” I imagined the two of us on a tropical beach, with umbrella cocktails.

She shook her head. “No.”

“Why not?” I felt like a puppy, a scared, lost puppy, who just wanted someone to put her collar on and show her where to go. What to do. How to be.

“I can’t go with you because you need to do this on your own.” Her words jarred me. She looked me straight in the eyes, as if I needed to absorb every drop of what she was about to say. “Em, your marriage has ended and, well, it’s just that you haven’t shed a single tear.”


On the walk back to my apartment I thought about what Annabelle said, and my thoughts, once again, turned to my aunt Bee. How had I let so many years pass without visiting her?

I heard a shrill, shrieking sound above my head, the unmistakable sound of metal on metal, and looked up. A copper duck weathervane stood at attention on the roof of a nearby cafe, weathered to a rich gray-green patina. It twirled noisily in the wind.

My heart pounded as I took in the familiar sight. Where had I seen it before? Then, it hit me. The painting. Bee’s painting. Until that moment, I had forgotten about the tiny five-by-seven canvas she’d given me as a child. She used to paint, and I remember the great sense of honor I felt when she chose me to be the caretaker of the artwork. I had called it a masterpiece, and my words made her smile.

I closed my eyes and could see the oil-painted seascape perfectly: the duck weathervane perched atop that old beach cottage, and the couple, hand-in-hand on the shore.

I felt overcome with guilt. Where was the painting? I’d packed it away after Joel and I moved into the apartment--he didn’t think it matched our décor. Just like I’d distanced myself from the island I’d loved as a child, I had packed away the relics from my past in boxes. Why? For what?

I picked up my pace until it turned into a full-fledged jog. I thought of Years of Grace. Did it accidentally end up in a box of Joel’s things? Or worse, had I mistakenly packed in a box of books and clothes for the Goodwill pickup? I reached the door to the apartment and jammed my key in the lock, then sprinted up the stairs to the bedroom and flung open the closet door. There, on the top shelf, were two boxes. I pulled one down and rummaged through its contents: a few old stuffed animals; a box of old photos; and several notebooks worth of clippings from my two-year stint writing for the college newspaper. Still, no painting.

I reached for the second box, and looked inside to find a Raggedy Anne doll, a box of notes from junior high crushes and my beloved Strawberry Shortcake diary from elementary school. That was it.

How could I have lost it? How could I have been so careless? I stood up, giving the closet a final once-over. A plastic bag shoved far into the back corner suddenly caught my eye. My heart raced with anticipation as I pulled it out into the light.

Inside the bag, wrapped in a turquoise and pink beach towel, was the painting. Something deep inside of me ached as I clutched it in my hands. The weathervane. The beach. The old cottage. They were all as I had remembered them. But not the couple. No, something was different. I had always imagined the subjects to be Bee and Uncle Bill. The woman was most certainly Bee with her long legs and trademark baby-blue Capri pants. “My summer pants,” she’d called them. But the man wasn’t Uncle Bill. No. How could I have missed this? Bill had light hair, sandy blonde. But this man had thick, wavy dark hair. Who was he? And why had Bee painted herself with him?

I left the mess on the floor and walked, with the painting, downstairs to my address book. I punched the familiar numbers into the phone and took a long deep breath, listening to the chime of the first ring and then the second.

“Hello?” Her voice was the same, deep and strong, with soft edges.

“Bee, it’s me, Emily,” I said, my voice cracking a little. “I’m sorry it’s been so long. It’s just that I –“

“Nonsense, dear,” she said. “No apologies necessary. Did you get my postcard?”

“Your postcard?”

“Yes, I sent it last week after I heard about your news.”

“You heard?” I hadn’t told very many people about Joel. Not my parents in Portland--not yet anyway. Not my sister in Los Angeles, with her perfect children, doting husband and organic vegetable garden. Not even my therapist. Even so, I wasn’t surprised that the news had made its way to Bainbridge Island.

“Yes,” she said. “And I wondered if you’d come for a visit.” She paused. “This island is a marvelous place to heal.”

I ran my finger along the edge of the painting. I wanted to be there just then--on Bainbridge Island, in Bee’s big warm kitchen.

“When are you coming?” Bee never wasted words.

“Is tomorrow too soon?”

“Tomorrow,” she said, “is the first of March, the month the Sound is at its best, dear. It’s absolutely alive.”

I knew what she meant when she said it. The churning gray water. The kelp and the seaweed and barnacles. I could almost taste the salty air. Bee believed that the Puget Sound was the great healer. And I knew that when I arrived, she would encourage me to take my shoes off and go wading, even if it was one o’clock in the morning--even if it was 43 degrees, which it probably would be.

“And, Emily?”


“There’s something important that we need to talk about.”

“What is it?”

“Not now. Not over the phone. When you get here, dear.”

After I hung up the phone, I walked downstairs to the mailbox to find a credit card bill, a Victoria’s Secret catalog, addressed to Joel, and a large square envelope. I recognized the return address, and it only took me a moment to remember where I’d seen it: on the divorce papers. There was also the fact that I’d Googled it the week before. It was Joel’s new townhouse on 57th--the one he was sharing with Stephanie.

The adrenaline started pumping when I considered the fact that Joel could have been reaching out to me. Maybe he was sending me a letter, a card, no, a romantic beginning to a scavenger hunt--an invitation to meet him somewhere in the city, where there’d be another clue, and then after four more, there he’d be, standing in front of the hotel where we met so many years ago. And he’d be holding a rose, no a sign, and it would read, “I’m sorry. I love you. Forgive me.” Exactly like that. It could be the perfect ending to a tragic romance. Give us a happy ending, Joel, I found myself whispering as I ran my finger along the envelope. He still loved me. He still felt something.

But when I lifted the edge of the envelope and carefully pulled out the gold-tinged card inside, the fantasy came to a crashing halt. All I could do was stare.

The thick card stock. The fancy calligraphy. It was a wedding invitation. His wedding invitation. 6 p.m. Dinner. Dancing. A celebration of love. Beef or chicken. Accepts with pleasure. Declines with regret. I walked to the kitchen, calmly bypassing the recycle bin, and instead set the little stack of gold stationery right into the kitchen trash, on top of takeout box of moldy chicken chow mein.

Fumbling with the rest of the mail, I dropped a magazine, and when I reached down to pick it up, I saw the postcard from Bee, which had been hiding in the pages of The New Yorker. The front featured a ferry boat, white with green trim, coming into Eagle Harbor. I flipped it over and read,


The island has a way of calling one back when it’s time. Come home. I have missed you, dear.

All my love,


I pressed the postcard to my chest and exhaled deeply.

*** view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. Emily adores the 1931 novel, Years of Grace, which is revealed early in the book and later shown to have a greater significance in her life. What are the many ways this book is woven into the novel and describe the significance to the characters?
2. Bainbridge Island, where the book is set, is often described by the author as a “character” in its own right in this story. What are some of the most memorable attributes of the island?
3. What are some of the many symbols and themes of healing and forgiveness used in the book?
4. In what ways are Emily and Esther similar, and in what ways are they different?
5. From artists to writers, there are many themes of art in this story—both past and present. What connections can be drawn from the artistic appreciation and sentiments of the characters in the diary and in present day?
6. What lessons does Esther have for Emily about love and about being true to one’s self?

Suggested by Members

The onesprovided were great
by Readnsew (see profile) 04/08/14

feelings toward characters when they were young and as adults.
by mangan319 (see profile) 09/24/11

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Note from author Sarah Jio:

In writing The Violets of March, I became interested in what we can learn from the past, most notably about love, forgiveness and reconciliation. Setting the story partially in the 1940s was a natural choice for me, as I’ve nursed a lifelong fascination with this decade and its movies, fashion and music.

When the story for this book came to me, it absolutely haunted me until I could get it down on paper—the characters, the island setting, the mystical nature of the wood violets, blooming out of season as a symbol of healing and forgiveness.

In all of it, I hoped to write a book that readers could curl up with and simply enjoy, a story that would make them feel, which is what any good book does, right? It was my hope to write a novel that people would think about long after the last page.

Book Club Recommendations

a lot of characters so a few notes would help keep a timeline
by Readnsew (see profile) 04/08/14
We had a few problems remembering who and when as it was such an easy read.
The Violets of March
by cherylwilliams5 (see profile) 07/25/13
Always simple: salad with natural herb and flowers in it served in wooden bowls. Of course, African Violets in pots as the center piece.
A very laid back session
by dianemjb (see profile) 03/21/13
Serve tea and short bread and scones and if a meal perhaps soups. Have a cozy atmosphere.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by shutchcroft (see profile) 12/07/18

by Mjuricic (see profile) 05/31/17

  "The Violets of March"by Linbru (see profile) 04/08/14

Who can resist family secrets? This book was written in a way that spoke to nearly everyone in our reading Group. It was a fun mystery that led to great discussions.

  "Violets of March"by Readnsew (see profile) 04/08/14

Really enjoyed this book. Good story that was an easy read....didn"t get boring or long

  "Violets of Cheesiness"by lkottmeyer1 (see profile) 03/13/14

  "The Violets of March"by cherylwilliams5 (see profile) 07/25/13

Just the cover calls you to read it.

  "Violets of March"by dianemjb (see profile) 03/21/13

Intriguing and often difficult to follow, suggest keeping a character list. It kept our group going all evening. We ll liked it and had different points to bring up about the situations in the book.

  "The Violets of March"by ncjn5 (see profile) 04/10/12

Great story! This is a good read for anyone who likes loves stories.

  "Violets of March"by Mobac (see profile) 03/24/12

What a lovely read! The parallel story lines weave and intertwine beautifully through the skilled and artful words of the talented Sarah Jio. Set in the 40s & present day, this novel has me dreaming about... (read more)

  "Violets of March"by nbaker (see profile) 02/02/12

After about 10-15 pages, I was hooked on this book and could not put it down. I love a mystery and especially one that deals with strong emotions and family ties. This is such a captivating story about... (read more)

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