At its heart, The $64 Tomato is a compelling saga of establishing and growing a super garden, interwoven with home, family and their Hudson River Valley locale. The narrator and chief gardener is a manager of computer systems at a Research Institute and his wife is a medical doctor. They have two children. The narrative spans approximately 20 years as they progress through middle age.
Alexander’s writing is remarkably pleasant; for Nancy and me it was a spring day that we just had to embrace. Though he is articulate and obviously bright, he is funny with a refreshing sense of humility and candor. His overall story is entertaining, occasionally poignant and sweet yet wistful. The prologue titled “Gentleman Farmer” (reproduced here without permission, so please don’t bust me) typifies the author’s style and sets the stage for what to expect from this little tome:
“Why can’t Dad be more like other dads?” Katie asked my wife recently. “All my friends’ dads spend Sundays watching football and drinking beer.” Then for good measure she added, “I wish we had a normal family.”
I was flabbergasted when I heard this. This is a thirteen-year-old’s ideal of a father? Belching beer in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon? I realize that most teenage girls think their families are weird (and their friends’ families cool), but still I was a little hurt. While this conversation was taking place, I was in the garden, of course, even though it was December. The first hard freeze of the season was coming in overnight, and I needed to harvest the remaining leeks. Later, while the Jets were blowing a close one, I was in the kitchen, making steaming leek-potato soup that Katie positively swooned over at dinner. And she wanted to trade me in for a beer-drinking couch potato?
Granted, I have my obsessions and eccentricities, the garden being most obvious, and maybe I’m not a typical dad, but I’m certainly normal. I decided to visit Zach’s bedroom for a reality check from a levelheaded seventeen-year-old.
“Zach, you’d say I’m a normal dad and we’re a normal family, wouldn’t you?”
“Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…” He nearly fell out of his chair, where he might have vanished for days beneath a deep pile of unwashed laundry, sweatshirts, textbooks, magazines, a trombone and a euphonium, and two guitars.
“I’ll take that as a no?”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Zach said, turning to face me directly. Zach has mastered the teenage art of subtly turning the tables on parent-child roles and making me feel the child, sheepish and a little embarrassed as he assumes the role of a wise parent. “Nothing is normal about this family,” he lectured, not smiling.
I’ve long known that I’m a little short on self-awareness, but this gap between my very own kid’s perception of our family life and mine was shocking nonetheless.
“In what ways, Zach? It feels pretty normal to me.”
“Dad, just look around.” Zach said, becoming exasperated with my denseness. “Take this house, for one. And you just came in from the garden. In freakin’ December.”
“How was that leek soup tonight?”
“And you cook.”
“It was good, wasn’t it? I think the leeks are sweeter late in the year.”
Zach spun his chair back to his computer, sighing and shaking his head. “December,” I heard him mutter under his breath.
While the book has relevance well beyond the garden, it is the experienced gardener who will find the author’s perfectly-paced stories and segues so eminently familiar and enjoyable. Book reviewers often mention the words “cautionary tale” or some such phrase and I’m pretty sure those words have been applied to this text. So while the veteran gardener might identify many aspects of this book as her story, it is the aspiring gardener who might take some cues from Mr. Alexander and prepare for some of the issues in her immediate future.
Nancy and I especially liked The $64 Tomato because so much of it reminded us of our experiences in gardening (the weather, the weeds, the pests, the chemical dilemmas) and in other aspects of life; owning an old house, living and raising a son in a not quite typical 20th or 21st century American existence. As garden center proprietors we found the book full of insights and challenges for though William and Dr. Ann Alexander might (unfortunately) not be our customers, we know and serve many who are replicating significant aspects of their adventures.
(The book, The $64 Tomato is available at Redbud Creek Farm.)