'Stone Flower Garden' a rock-solid romantic mystery

Darl Union and Eli Wade are childhood soul mates, yet their lives can't be more diametrically opposed. She is the heiress to the Hardigree Marble Co. that rules the town and he is the son of one of the company's stonecutters.

Their world is shattered after Darl witnesses the murder of a family member committed by one of her own, and Eli's family flees when his father is wrongly accused of the crime.

"The Stone Flower Garden" (Little, Brown, 320 pages, $23.95) is Deborah Smith's neatly chiseled Southern Gothic tale about power, guilt, love and loss.

It opens in 1972 when Darl, 7, falls in love with Eli, whose family had just moved from Tennessee to Burnt Stand, a sleepy town in North Carolina made entirely from pink marble.

On her 10th birthday, Darl, an orphan raised by her stern grandmother and marble baroness Swan Hardigree, receives a marble necklace identical to those her female ancestors wore as a symbol of iron will.

Marble has great importance in the novel and Smith makes the substance a central literary theme.

For example, when Darl first meets Eli, she decides they "were cut from the same rock." As an adult, she realizes the Hardigree name "stood for unbreakable women and unbreakable marble" and that she "had cracked."

Darl is not the first woman in the lineage to be seen as weak. Her ostracized great-aunt Clara broke ranks by ignoring her social status and ran wild. Trouble brews when Clara struts into town one day to bribe Swan. She is killed and at Swan's urging, Darl keeps mum about the murder. After Clara's car is found in a lake, fingers point to Eli's father, who saw her last at a bar. The Wade family flees and Darl and Eli are torn from each other.

Fast-forward 25 years. Darl is a famous public defender. Eli is a rich professional gambler. Both try hard to move on with their lives: Darl feels guilty knowing the murderer's identity while Eli falsely believes it's his father.

"The Stone Flower Garden" teaches that a secret can be hidden, but not forever. When Darl and Eli meet as adults, they reconcile with the sins of the past. Darl summons the courage to lead Eli to Clara's hidden grave in the "magical" glen on the Hardigree estate known as the Stone Flower Garden, where they used to escape as children. The truth is spilled, forgiveness is sought and justice is doled out.

Smith's haunting tale reaffirms that the goodness in human nature will prevail and that to let go of the past, one must sculpt a future that is devoid of the rigid, stonelike qualities that used to bind it.

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