Plant Life

A Novel
Trade Paperback

Also available in …
Add Plant Life to Goodreads

Her luminous first novel, Moon Women, won the hearts of both readers and critics, who called it “richly textured...a pleasure to be savored by a writer to watch.” (Kirkus Reviews) Now Pamela Duncan returns to the rich landscape of the human heart with a lush, resonant novel about mothers and daughters, about family and friendship, about a woman at a turning point in her life and the extraordinary world she discovers in a place called home…

It’s Christmastime in Russell, North Carolina. For Laurel Granger, the holiday can’t pass quickly enough. With her fifteen-year marriage ending, the visit to her hometown is bound to be even more painful than usual. And the worst part will be looking at the lives of her mother, Pansy, and Pansy’s gossipy group of friends, for whom life revolves around the plant, the aging textile mill where for decades they have found companionship, a modest livelihood, and a purpose.

But with her own marriage disintegrating—the full scope of the disaster hasn’t become clear to her yet—Laurel has nowhere else to turn except Russell, and to the women of the plant. And soon what Laurel begins to see is not the stifling town she couldn’t wait to leave, nor women whose lives seem petty and plain, but a place where powerful secrets have been kept...where hearts and lives have been broken...and where a group of extraordinary women may have a thing or two to teach her about life. Most of all, as Laurel starts to live and even love a little again, she is faced with her mother, and her mother before her, and what their complex relationship has meant for Laurel all these years.

Weaving together the voices of several remarkable women across generations, Pamela Duncan tells a story of faith and forgiveness, acts of love and acts of betrayal. With the same artful brushstrokes that made Moon Women a wonder, Duncan paints a masterful portrait of seemingly ordinary lives, and of what it means to grow a life and a future—in the rich soil of the past.


"Plant Life is an American classic. Like Our Town or Winesburg, Ohio, it presents a compelling and moving portrait of an entire community. In this case, it is the life of a cotton mill, and three generations of women who work there—whose whole lives have been determined by the mill.  Stark, poetic, funny, gritty, and intense, their stories will move you to tears and make you laugh at the same time. Never have the lives of Southern working women been so well documented, their stories so truly told. Plant Life is a mature work of a great compassion and insight.”—Lee Smith, bestselling author of Fair and Tender Ladies and The Last Girls

"Plant Life is sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, but always real. Pamela Duncan doesn't just write a great novel—she pours her heart out onto the page, giving a piece of herself to the reader. Here she is exploring the terroritory she knows best: families and friendships and the friends who feel like family. She tells these people's stories with honor and grace but never a hint of sentimentality. This book is full of the hard-earned wisdom of working people, people who dream and love as hard as they work. Plant Life is a beautiful book from a writer who gets to the soul of the matter."—Silas House, author of Clay's Quilt and A Parchment of Leaves   


Chapter One

Laurel loved grocery stores, loved coming in out of the heat and strolling into that delicious air-conditioned comfort, putting the workday behind her. She loved the extra blast of cool air and the smell of carnations and roses when she opened the cold case across from produce, loved the beautiful colors of peppers and eggplant and apples and lemons. She loved going up and down all the rows, taking her time, looking at everything, losing herself for just a little while in that clean, orderly world. She loved the variety, loved the way something she'd overlooked a million times would suddenly one day jump out at her, full of possibility. Like the time she picked up a bag labeled masa harina just to see what the heck it was and ended up having a ball making tamales for supper that night.

Scott had hated those tamales. God, was everything always going to remind her of him? She'd never been kicked in the stomach before, but that's what it felt like every time she remembered after not thinking about it for a while: a physical blow. And when she turned a corner and saw him there at the other end of the aisle, she thought, Oh, great, now I'm seeing things. My subconscious wants to see him so bad that I've hallucinated. After all, how could she possibly do the shopping without him? It was something they'd always done together, every Thursday after work. They'd meet at the grocery store, spend an hour shopping, then pick up burgers and eat supper in front of the TV. But, no, he didn't go away when she blinked hard, didn't turn into some other man who only looked like Scott.

Last time--had it really been months?--she'd found him in that same spot, reading spaghetti-sauce labels. Laurel had always liked to take her time, compare prices and ingredients, plan menus in her head, but Scott would get bored and go on ahead of her. She'd caught up with him, gone up and poked him in the middle of his back, and he'd turned, grinning that oops you caught me grin, and put his arm around her. He'd asked why she insisted on making homemade sauce when this stuff was just as good and wouldn't take nearly as much effort, and she pretended to be hurt that he didn't like her sauce, and he said, You know what I mean, and they laughed, and she said how much she loved cooking for him, and they put the jar back on the shelf and turned the corner. That's how it should be, had been, so many times.

And now this, this holding herself back. It would not sink in, the fact that she no longer had any right to do what she wanted so badly to do, which was go to him, put her arm around him, rub his back, smell him, gather a fold of his shirt in her hand and hold on. She wanted him to put his arm around her, walk with her, pushing the buggy side by side, bumping hips and laughing like they used to. He looked so adorable, so helpless, picking up first one jar and then another. Seeing him unexpectedly had always affected her this way, made her stomach jump, or was it her heart? All her vital organs sat up and paid attention. Wanting to touch him was a physical ache in her joints, a longing in every muscle. She looked down at her hands, at the white circle around her ring finger, the wedding band and engagement ring now hanging on a chain under her blouse.

Then, just like that, it was a specific Thursday, this Thursday, the third Thursday of not being his wife, of him not being her husband, and she wanted to turn away but it was too late. He'd seen her, had smiled his old, carefree smile before catching himself, before realizing. It was still new to him too. Laurel smiled back, not wanting to feel that fluttering of hope in her chest but moving toward him anyway. She wondered where Deedee was, then shook the thought off. For just one minute she would allow herself to pretend there was no Deedee.

At least she looked nice since she'd just come from work, her favorite yellow linen suit still relatively unwrinkled, and she'd put on fresh lipstick in the car. Her hand went automatically to her hair, wondering if the French braid had come loose, wondering if he'd notice the new gray hairs mixed in with the brown. He was wearing an outfit she didn't recognize, khaki pants and a dark blue golf shirt that brought out the color of his eyes. At least Deedee was dressing him well. He'd never liked Laurel's taste in clothes, and she'd kept her mouth shut about his. He reminded her of Clark Kent, with his tortoiseshell glasses and that glossy black hair--Elvis hair, her daddy had called it when he first met Scott, although Laurel failed to see the resemblance and Scott did not appreciate the comparison. "Elvis dyed his hair," Scott had said, as if male hair coloring might be a crime.

"Hey," he said, the smile not so wide this time. He glanced over his shoulder, then turned back to her. "How are you?" He said it so seriously, as if she'd just got out of the hospital.

"Fine," she said, shaking her head. Not her first lie of the day in response to that question. She hadn't told people at work, hadn't wanted to get into it with them. When she said fine, they believed her and left it at that, just like Scott was doing.

"What you got there?" She nodded at the Newman's Own he held in one hand, Ragoe in the other, then noticed the wedding band on the Ragoe hand. She looked up, confused. She'd taken hers off the day they signed the papers and thought he had too. He opened his mouth to say something, then looked past her and smiled and waved. Laurel turned, already knowing, already dreading. It was her--Deedee. Deedee sounded like some kind of bird, something stupid that tweeted all day and drove you crazy. Deedee took her time, sashaying her tight white T-shirt and white jeans-wearing, blond-headed--that would be bleach blond, by the way--self down the aisle, turning her cart to face Laurel's. What is this, Laurel thought, a game of chicken?

"Honey, I got the cereal you like," Deedee said, turning her face up to Scott's like a little girl waiting for Daddy's approval. Laurel had to look away, couldn't stand seeing them side by side. She took a quick inventory of her cart to see what she still needed, then looked at theirs. Oh, God. She glanced at Scott to see if he'd noticed, but he was too busy checking the cereal box Tweety Deedee had handed him. Laurel checked the buggies again. They had the same groceries, right down to Scott's favorite salad mix, his favorite blue-cheese dressing, his favorite pasta, his favorite cookies, his favorite everything. She hadn't even realized she was doing it. Pure habit, that's what it was, one she'd had for so long she didn't even think about it anymore. Please God, she thought, don't let him see, don't let him notice anything.

The cereal must've passed inspection, because Scott tossed it in the buggy. Deedee, satisfied, turned, gave Laurel a fake smile, held out her hand. "Have we met? I'm Deedee."

Laurel's spine stiffened. She ignored the hand and showed her teeth. Bitch! she thought. You know exactly who I am and I know you, right down to your conniving little bones. "I'm Laurel," she said, surprised not to see lightning flashing between them after that shared look of pure animosity. Deedee's cheeks turned red and she turned to Scott, who had his back to them.

Laurel glanced down, saw the hands again, saw the rings. Diamond solitaire, two carats at least. And the clincher, a wedding band that of course she could now see matched the one on Scott's hand. Time froze while this information processed through her brain, then headed for her guts. Married. They were married. Score, Deedee, she thought. I sure didn't see that coming. Willpower alone stopped her from slapping that hand, breaking those long French nails, which for the record were too white, bordering on tacky, especially against that dark tan. Ten years, maybe even five, Deedee could be dead of melanoma, and then where would Scott be?

Scott had turned back to his spaghetti sauce and refused to make eye contact. Laurel decided a quick exit was called for, but she made the mistake of looking into their buggy again, and even thinking their buggy made her mad. This time she noticed avocados, cilantro, tomatoes, limes. Guacamole? She did a double take, then looked at Scott, knowing he wanted to run and hide. He hated confrontation and so did she. Well, maybe he hated it a little more than she did. But it was one of the things they'd liked about each other, both quiet, peace-loving homebodies. No muss, no fuss, no fighting, just the occasional disagreement about who forgot to take out the trash or where to go for dinner. How could he do this to her? How could he not tell her, not give her fair warning? And now they'd ruined her nice quiet shopping trip, not to mention her life, and she could feel Mount Saint Laurel building up, ready to blow. She wouldn't blow, though. She would remain calm, behave in an adult manner, handle this with class, pure class.

Laurel showed her teeth again. "I'd just like to know one thing," she said as sweetly as possible considering she wanted to slash that smirk off Deedee's face with a clawhammer. "Can you tell me please, what the hell is this?" She pointed to the groceries.

"What?" Scott said. "What is what?"

"This!" Laurel grabbed the plastic bag of avocados and shook it in his face. She made sure to lower her voice a little. "This, you son of a bitch. What is this?"

"It's avocados," Deedee said, trying to be helpful.

Laurel turned away from Deedee's pitying look, a look that said, How sad. The little hick from North Carolina has never seen an avocado before.

"Really?" Laurel said, staring at Scott, willing him to look at her. He became fascinated with the cans of sauce on the bottom shelf and squatted down for a closer look.

Deedee nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, Scott's never had guacamole before, so I'm going to make some tonight."

Scott's head appeared above the buggy as he rose to his feet and Laurel turned on him. "Liar!" she said. "What have you been telling her? God, you make me sick. Why don't you tell her the truth? Tell your sweet little coed that, oh, yes indeed, you most certainly have had guacamole before, made by my own two little hands, and tell her what else. Tell her how you spit it out after I spent an hour making it. Tell her how you said you hoped I wouldn't waste good money on crap like that again." She flung the avocados back in the cart. "Tell her you don't like guacamole, you never have liked guacamole, and you never will like guacamole!"

An old guy who looked like the only thing holding him up was his buggy pushed slowly past them, staring, and Laurel stared back, saying, "Well, he doesn't!" The whole store must've heard but she didn't give a damn, she'd never shop there again. In the shocked silence, she had the urge to laugh, followed by the urge to cry, followed by total calm. I'm losing my mind, she thought, and it's not so bad.

Scott and Deedee stared at her, looking for all the world like her old Barbie and Ken dolls, and just as speechless. She realized now she should've listened to her brother all those years ago. Cecil was all the time wanting her to let Barbie go out with his Big Jim doll and she'd always said, No, you idiot, Barbie and Ken are a couple. She'd never questioned it, never given it a thought, didn't even know at that age what being a couple meant, just went along with the advertising: Barbie and Ken go together, end of story. How could she have been so blind? Maybe Big Jim didn't have the wardrobe or the fancy sports car, but he had that great RV and he knew how to survive in the wilderness. Big Jim could take care of a woman, and he'd never even think of leaving her stranded in the middle of the desert all by herself. God! Ken was a selfish bastard.

"You know what?" she said, shaking her head and spinning the cart around. "Never mind. Let her find out the hard way like I did." Keeping her head down, she pushed the buggy to the pet-food aisle and left it there. She hadn't even made it to the refrigerated and frozen foods yet, so nothing would spoil. Some poor clerk would find it later and put everything back just the way she'd found it, just like she'd never been there.

She hadn't realized she was waiting for them until they walked out, Deedee holding Scott's arm, only two grocery bags in his other hand. Not a week's worth, then. She and Scott had always shopped for the whole week. Maybe Deedee didn't plan ahead the way Laurel did. Maybe Deedee didn't like to cook either. The way Scott was looking at her, though, he didn't care what Deedee couldn't do.

She put the car in drive, her foot on the brake. They hadn't seen her. She could press the accelerator and they'd be dead in seconds, squashed as flat as Deedee's narrow little ass. She could drive into the desert and ditch the car and walk into the mountains until she found a cave, and there she would make her home, become a feral woman and live off the land and never see another human soul. Or she could swerve slightly and kill only Deedee, leaving Scott alive to visit her in prison until she got out early for good behavior, and then he'd never ever make the mistake again of leaving her for another woman. He'd love and cherish her as he'd promised to do at their wedding.

But it was too late. They were safe in Scott's Jeep Cherokee, the very Jeep Cherokee her paycheck had helped make payments on. Before Scott started the engine, he leaned over to kiss Deedee, and Laurel closed her eyes. She knew that feeling, the warmth of his face so close, his hand on her neck, then his soft lips on hers, the smell of his cologne so blended with the smell of him that it made a completely unique scent that could never be found in a bottle. She loved to breathe him, loved sitting back from the kiss wrapped in that heat, feeling so safe and so wanted.

Reader's Guide

1. What was your reaction to Maw Bert’s prologue, particularly her assertion that women must choose between a college education and marriage?

2. The first chapter opens in one of Laurel’s favorite locales—the grocery store. What makes this such a telling—and entertaining—setting for her showdown with Scott and his new wife?

3. One of the most striking aspects of the Russell residents is their high rate of lifelong commitments, such as Dan and Pansy’s thirty-nine-year marriage, and Idalene’s intention to continue working at the plant until age seventy-five. In your opinion, does this trait always indicate contentment? Do you prefer to stay the course or change paths often? Discuss the factors that have contributed to your most significant life decisions.

4. Compare Hap to Joe. What does each man offer Laurel? Why is she hesitant to get serious with either of them?

5. What does Laurel discover about herself as a result of working at the plant and associating with her mother’s friends?

6. The theme of poverty subtly recurs throughout Plant Life; hard economic times force Dill to sell off much of his prized land, while the need for reliable income causes many of the characters to put their dreams on hold. What does Pamela Duncan convey about the economic history of this region? What do her characters have in abundance?

7. How might Pansy’s life have been different had she been born after the 1970s? Do you attribute the quashing of her talent to the time period of her youth, or to Maw Bert’s overprotectiveness?

8. Do you believe Maw Bert’s justification for destroying the charity doll to which Pansy was so attached? Why was Maw Bert so certain that Pansy would never be able to attain the things she craved as a young girl?

9. What is the significance of the novel’s title? How do some of the characters’ names (for example, Laurel and Pansy) reflect their personalities? What are some examples?

10. Consider the spectrum of relationships presented in Plant Life, ranging from supportive marriages to abusive ones and Idalene’s satisfying affair with Mr. Arthur. What insight can be drawn from these widely varied couples?

11. Discuss the concept of home as portrayed in Plant Life. What does it take for the central characters to feel securely rooted? What does Idalene’s bequest to Laurel represent, besides material comfort?

12. What does Pansy’s painting of the cornfield indicate about her notion of love and life?

13. Discuss the ways in which work defines these women’s lives. How does it shape their identities and interactions? What is its role in their sense of “community?”

14. In what ways are the female characters in Plant Life similar and dissimilar to those in Moon Women? How do you think the central characters in both novels might react to each other?

The Sisters Sweet

A young woman in a vaudeville sister act must learn to forge her own path after her twin runs away to Hollywood in this richly immersive debut about love, family, and… More

Get Untamed

This stunning hardcover journal is a bold, interactive guide to discovering and creating the truest, most beautiful lives, families, and world we can imagine, based on the #1 New York Times bestseller Untamed. “We… More