There’s something to say about a piece of literature that pulls every emotion out of you over the course of reading. I’ve only read a handful of books that have managed to do that for me, and when I came across this book earlier this year, I couldn’t believe that not only did this book just happen to exist in the same timeline that I did, but that it was the debut from a very talented author. The only thing that I regret is the fact that it’s taken me so long to get around to reviewing it, as well as sharing the amazing interview that I was able to snag with Dawn Adams Cole, the author.
Let’s talk about one of my favorite reads of the year, Drops of Cerulean, and see what Dawn Adams Cole had to say about it, her process, and what she hopes readers gain from her words.
Spanning the years 1930–2014, Drops of Cerulean chronicles the lives of Ilona, the daughter of a Greek restaurateur, who marries into a prominent Houston family; her son, Cadmus, who becomes a professor and then moves into a retirement home after his husband passes away; and Delphina, an anxiety-ridden woman with a mysterious recurring dream.
Ilona and Cadmus have a falling out when Cadmus is a young man, and before they are able to reconcile, Ilona dies. Cadmus is plagued with guilt and feels responsible for the death of his mother. Two worlds collide when, years later, Delphina comes to understand that she had been Ilona, Cadmus’s mother, in her previous life.
Drops of Cerulean is a gem of a novel. When I first read the premise I was intrigued; by the first chapter I was completely captivated. I found Cadmus’ story to be raw and relatable; Ilona’s was heart wrenching and powerful. Delphine’s rang most true, with her struggles with anxiety, feelings of not belonging, and the desire to find her place in a world that she didn’t feel she totally belonged in–that there was something missing. Ilona, Cadmus, and Delphine’s story lines intersect in a beautiful tale of love, loss, regret, and rebirth, back-dropped with deeper themes surrounding multicultural families, homosexuality, and seeking forgiveness within and without one’s own existence.
This book was an emotional heavy weight.
I think the thing that made this book so successful for me, was how real everything felt. From the historical setting of Houston, Texas, to the interactions between Ilona’s Greek family and her husband, Patrick’s Irish Catholic one, to the intimate unabashed examination of societal prejudice against the marginalized, every choice that Dawn Adams Cole made felt intentional, nuanced, and it only served the story that much more. As a biracial, queer reader, it’s very easy to pick up where an author perhaps doesn’t understand where certain things overlap, or where they didn’t take into consideration how a situation would play out in real life in order to transfer it to the page. I might as well have been reading a memoir over a fictional novel; it only made me love Cadmus, Ilona, and Delphine more and it made me appreciate Dawn as a writer. Coupled with imagery-evoking prose, I ate up every page ravenously.
Themes, Threads, and Thoughts, Oh My
Drops of Cerulean is full of themes, and I think where it’s very easy to get bogged down in them, Dawn Adams Cole wove them together so expertly it was almost hard for me to believe that this was her debut novel. With Ilona, we see her progress from young adulthood to motherhood, coming of age in a time where there were very specific things expected of daughters–and wives. Ilona’s desire to be something other than what her family expected while also grappling with the guilt over feeling like she left their orthodox Greek tradition in favor of her husband’s Irish Catholic heritage weaves through the whole book as we see her and her falling out with her daughter, how it effects her son, Cadmus, and how it beats a cadence that resonates within the themes of regret and reconnection that surface in later portions of the book.
It would be… impossible to concisely go over every theme in this book and do it justice, but I think the one that stuck with me the most was the idea that it’s possible to make amends. The falling out that happens between Cadmus and Ilona, involving how she handles their church’s disapproval of Cadmus’ sexuality, is one that leaves a visceral scar within Cadmus. He takes it with him later in life, it’s something he holds to through his marriage, and after the death of his husband. Guilt over the way he and his mother became estranged, thinking that it was impossible to make things right–these are feelings that I think everyone can understand and identify with at various states of life.
The fact that this is between a mother and son is what I think makes it that much more impactful. The relationship between the two had been cultivated, nurtured, and in an instant it was if all that loving cultivation was mowed over. We all, I think, have felt that before. That something so vibrant in our lives was snuffed out due to something that we did, whether it was through action or, in Cadmus’ case, through a fit of misplaced emotion. We’re often told that once we break something in life, we cannot fix it–it’s why we’re so careful with our actions, our words, our relationships. Drops of Cerulean leaves the feeling that forgiveness can come even in the places that we least expect to get it from.
Thoughts on Drops of Cerulean with Dawn Adams Cole
And now, as promised, the interview that I was lucky enough to snag with Dawn Adams Cole. It was an utter pleasure to speak with her more on Drops of Cerulean, and in true fashion I had to keep myself from gushing too much at her about how much I appreciated her book.
I’m not actually sure how well I accomplished that.
D: I’m so glad you liked the book and I’m so glad it resonated with you. When you write something and it resonates with people, it’s such a rewarding and humbling, it makes you feel so connected with people.
M: It was definitely one that I fell in love with, and very quickly, too. I got into it the first few chapters and the premise itself was really interesting to me, and I’ve always been a very big fan of contemporary fiction that isn’t necessarily set into today’s time period. There’s always a certain kind of charm that comes with books like that and just through the whole thing I was just sort of updating my partner on it, about parts of it that made me happy, or parts that I had to keep reading through because I really wanted to sort of see if an issue or a problem that any of them at any time were was going to get resolved and resolved happily—which sort, it depends, you know, where you are in the book if it does get resolved happily, but I found myself getting to the end and I was really overall happy that eventually they all ended up coming to a point of resolution, which is nice.
D: Right, yeah. It was interesting just writing it too. Because after a while, the characters just started writing themselves. And speaking to people in the industry, it sounds like something very ‘authory’ to say, but you just get to know them and I knew how I wanted it to end but I didn’t know how to get there. And so it was just interesting to have the characters just start to talk to themselves. The night before the book was officially released, I just looked out onto the skyline and I could see it in the winter bare trees and I just said, ‘I hope I served you well,’ because it felt like they were my friends.
M: Since we’re on the subject of writing, I know that you teach. You were actually writing Drops of Cerulean while teaching. Did you always have the feeling that you wanted to be a writer, that that was definitely something that you wanted to do, or was it something you came into later?
D: It was later. I mean, I stumbled into it, I guess you could say. The story lines were always in my head and I think some of it just comes from working with young people. When I started it, I was a teacher part time at the high school down the street. Then I became an administrator about a year later and then I had to take about a year off to learn my new role. The stories just kept nagging at me though, and I had to tell it. I have so many ideas and I think it just comes from interacting with people—and I know everybody does, as human beings we all have social experiences I just think in school as a teacher, principal, administrator, you just see the rawness in humanity and you see so much conflict and emotion in schools. There’s just so many worthy story lines where there’s not just a villain, everyone is just struggling, and everyone’s trying to make sense and meaning in their lives.
So ideas just kept coming to me, and I always loved writing—so I don’t know what came first, the chicken or the egg. Just trying to be connected with humanity and serve parents and students well and just really absorbing their stories, which I think served me well as a principal but also can take a toll on you when you come home and you’ve absorbed all those stories, and I think it just came out through paper.
But, I’m not teaching right now. I took some time off to continue to explore my writing, be more involved with my girls at school, so I’m taking a bit of a break. I’m not going to say I won’t do it again because I already miss being in school—it’s only been a month or two and I already miss being around students.
M: Well you definitely have a lot to impart in them if you ever did return. I think they’d be able to appreciate a lot of it.
D: I hope so, we’ll see what’s in store.
M: Speaking of Houston; especially in contemporary fiction, the setting means more to the overall story than just ‘this happens to be the place where everything happens.’ Was there a reason specifically that you chose to write this in Houston?
D: I’m a native Houstonian, and in my circles it’s getting to be a rare thing because everyone is from all over the country. But I love Houston, and I loved Houston before it was cool to love Houston—before the Astros won, before it became more cosmopolitan, and so my Houston, as I call it, is more a working class spirit, a more can-do spirit, I grew up in a very working class environment and it was more just the city’s grit, and you could make something here, you can create your life here, you could reinvent it. And that isn’t true for a lot of parts of the country that are lovely to visit—like I lived in Boston for a few years and I loved it—but there’s just something about the spirit of Houston and that was something that I wanted to convey to people who were new to the city. And I tell people a lot of different stories about Houston.
I reference it a little in the book but not directly, that when the Great Depression happened, it didn’t hit Houston as hard as it hit other parts of the country. And one of the reasons for that was Jesse Jones pulled all the bankers together and told everyone that they weren’t going to let any of the banks go under. So, no bank fell in Houston during that time, and people just continued to dream. And I even look at my own great grandfather at the time—who I never got to meet—but he started a machine shop in the east side, working class, in 1929, and you think, who did that? When the Great Depression was upon everybody. So there was still that spirit that you could do it. And I wanted to incorporate that spirit in the Esperson building, which I love the building if you’ve seen any pictures of it, and that building was built by a woman in 1927.
M: That’s amazing.
D: That’s something that I don’t think people appreciate either. Her husband passed away, grew up poor but was rich because of those oil stories you hear about, and she did that in his name, and she carried on the business and became this real estate businesswoman in Houston and was recognized in 1930 as a successful businesswoman. And so when you think, God that was made by a woman, I think that was pretty cool.
M: Especially for the time period.
D: Yes! Especially that she didn’t wallow in this grief—which was a good contrast for Ilona—but just that she really forged her way. So that’s just my city, and I think it’s really nice to see you hometown in a book and so often it’s other cities around the world and I wanted to something with that Houston ethos.
M: So you definitely put a lot of your personal ties to Houston in here, did you have a lot of ground work research that you had to do and if so how did that process go for you and how did that influence how you ended up writing your book?
D: I always liked the Esperson building, but I didn’t know a lot about it until I researched it. I knew the history of the U of H downtown building because I took classes there to become a teacher, and so it was just fascinating to me that again, that building built in 1930 was part of a vision of Houston with the rails at the bottom, and you had the working class and their offices and the higher floors. I thought the building’s history was fascinating and I don’t think a lot of people know it, and it was neat to me that even though the building became vacant, and in some essence failed, the fact that it’s an education institution—talk about a rebound. And so I’m like looking at Houston and theme, and so I knew a little bit about the building and I started there. And then when I researched the other buildings in the area, I really discovered the Esperson building fit in perfectly. I had a private tour of the building about a year and a half before I finished the book, and that was just incredible hearing stories of Millie Esperson and having time alone in there, it was very visual. Having time in there was incredible.
I did research around the city, the things I already knew since I grew up on the East side, I just dug deeper but I already had an idea of where to go.
M: It definitely shows, especially in reading because as a person—I was born in San Antonio and now live in Beaumont. I’ve been to Houston in my adult life maybe once, but in reading Drops of Cerulean, it was really immersive, and it felt like you could have been a person that’s never been to Texas and you still would have understood Houston as if you’ve lived there your whole life.
D: That’s good to hear, I’m glad to hear that. I wanted to entice people to come to Houston—come to the heights.
M: Bouncing off of themes, given the ones inspired by Houston, Drops of Cerulean had its fair share: love, loss, regret, rebirth being the big ones that I picked up on while reading. When you started writing, was that the intention, that you wanted them to be at the forefront, or did they come together as you began writing?
D: Overall, I had intended—I mean you know the first inspiration was the natural world, and how we’re a part of it, but we remove ourselves from it so much with our labels and our ego? And so that was really the initial driver between it. So I thought about a character that struggled with that and found a sense of purpose in the universe, even if you don’t get it, it’s going to be okay. I think that sort of remains a constant through that. The other part—the setting, of course—came about, but the other inspiration came about in the spiritual world. And it’s funny because I look back and I remember being five years old and I remember because I was watching Seseme Street—and even my husband asked how I knew how old I was, because I remembered where I was, I was watching Seseme Street!—and something that I saw made me think, wow, am I my body? Am I my soul? Where is it? in my mind? And I remember being really unsettled by it because I couldn’t remember who is me? Who I am. So I thought about that a lot and our souls, are we here, do we come back? What does that look like?
And so I think I’ve always thought about interconnectedness, and how when you peel back our layers we’re in essence the same, like we want to belong and we have different ways of demonstrating that, some of them not so good. But we have so many ways that we want to belong and we’re searching. I feel like that concept of the spiritual and the natural came through in the end was very intentional. I hope that people take from this that—to just ask themselves, is free will really free? And, I can just hear people saying ‘oh, more relativism,’ but if we’re the composite of our life experience, not even going to past lives, and these average choices we make every day, how much of that is really free? Or conditioned? And I think that goes back to me being an educator that there be a student that does something and they get a consequence—but I could see why they did it. and that was hard for me, that there was some artificial consequence that we had to give, and I get that too. What made that person do that? Sometimes it’s heinous and obvious and clear, but it’s the subtle things that get me—the subtle things and how we judge each other. I hope that people will think about that. The times you don’t act, the times you do act, and the times you act grandly like woa, this is a big decision. There’s so many little things that we do and we don’t do, like all the times you don’t speak up and you should. So I’m hoping that will run through it for people, and that was something that definitely developed more as the story did.
M: Would you say then, that this idea that calling into question your choices, your actions, the things you do, whether or not they’re really acts of free will or if they’re influenced by this larger thing, would you say that was what influenced the reincarnation idea towards the second half of the book, especially with Delphina and her connection/reconnection when it came to Cadmus?
D: Yeah. What I liked about that story line is sometimes you think, we have this image—this cliché image—if you do believe in former or past lives and karma (and karma’s really taken out of context) and if you suffered in one life, you’re going to have paradise in the next, as long as you are a good person. And Ilona was a good person—but that doesn’t mean that it’s all going to be perfect for her, because she had things that she struggled with, whether it was guilt or not standing up when she should have or inaction, and I liked that it was a more natural ‘what did she need to learn’ if she decided to give it another whirl in another lifetime, and that it isn’t just, again, ‘you’re a good person and you automatically everything good comes from that.’ Because ultimately what is a good person, and what kind of person are you in your soul and just kind of thinking about that.
I also like in the story that it’s a love between a mother and her child because often again there’s that cliché that soulmates finding each other in another life is usually romantic love, and though there is romantic love in there, I think the bond between a mother and child is just incredible, and I’m glad that was the main love that was focused upon.
M: That was actually one of my favorite things about it. Just the fact that what was tethering Ilona to our world, the here and now, wasn’t the loss of Patrick—it was a contributing factor—but just that fact that it was her unresolved conflict between her and her son was something that was easy to see, especially in the first half when she has a huge prominence. There’s her romance with Patrick—but it’s very obvious that the story is essentially the platonic love story of a mother and son, they’re the most important people in each other’s lives. So it was really refreshing to see that. She does eventually get a love—but the real focus is on her son and there’s only so much time to do so, and I love that’s how the book closes out.
D: Oh yes—and I started even to wonder, ‘oh god, Delphina, don’t go down a rabbit hole, don’t leave him and try to figure out every thread of your life girl, just don’t!’ Just have that resolution. That’s another thing you think: if you had that happen, would you keep researching and trying to find where you left off, would you drive yourself crazy doing research and not focus on the present and the people you’re with? And that’s something else I wanted people to kind of come away with—it’s not always going to be perfect, but at the end of the day as long as you’re living your fullest expression of life, and give the love in your present life, now, that’s what matters.
M: So to round this out on a final note: if there’s anything you’d want someone to get out of Drops of Cerulean, what would it be, after all is said and done,
D: That’s a good question, and at the risk of repeating what we already talked about, I think that one, there’s divine order to life—and people have different names for that divine order—but if we truly believe we are a part of that, I think we would look at each other’s commonalities more often than not, that there’s some purpose, some plan, and it isn’t always monotheistic or right and wrong. I won’t get into the minutia of religion, but we are a part of this amazing order and if we get into this amazing awe more—and I started thinking cerulean sky and it hit me that the book talks so much about looking at the sky and looking up, I think if we look within instead of just looking to sky in hopes of prayers and wonders, that we have so much power as human beings to create beauty or create destruction and we’re all part of the same organism. I hope in essence that that’s what people take away from it, that we’re all interconnected, we’re all united, and our actions can bring hope and love—or a word can do the exact opposite.
All in all, I really loved this book. A lot. More than a lot. I can see myself going back to this book later this year, in years to come. It’s going to have a permanent, well-loved spot on my shelf. I can’t express enough how excited I was to speak with Dawn, and I can’t wait to see what she has in store for the future.
A huge thank you to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read Drops of Cerulean and give an honest review.
Drops of Cerulean is for you if you: are looking for multicultural adult fiction; enjoy strong family bonds; love historical fiction; or want to feel intense joy and cry in the span of a few pages.