Each one of Susan Branch’s cheerfully hand-lettered and illustrated books in her autobiographical trilogy is a feel-good experience for both the eyes and the heart. Beginning with (but not written chronologically) The Fairy Tale Girl, then Martha’s Vineyard, Isle of Dreams, and ending with A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside, Branch shares the story of her interesting and productive life.
Her life story, though, is only a small part of these books. The text is handwritten and each page is covered in enchanting, vibrant watercolor illustrations vining their way around the borders. Photos and life-affirming quotes are sprinkled throughout. The books are not quick reads, not because of any great depth, but because each page must be savored, each nook and cranny between lines of text explored for the treasures they hold.
As much as her artwork is a treat, Branch’s life story is just as interesting. The oldest of eight children raised in California in the fifties and sixties, Branch had an idyllic youth, which she tells about in The Fairy Tale Girl. Humorous stories include the time in 1964 that she and a girlfriend snuck, commando-style, into the backyard of the Bel Air house in which the Beatles were staying and saw John Lennon in his underwear. She also tells the story of meeting and marrying her Prince Charming, a charismatic entrepreneur and ladies’ man who zips around southern California in a flashy sports car. She loved lace and Laura Ashley prints and anything old, while he wanted things clean and modern. Despite a deep friendship with her prince that still endures, her storybook marriage did not last.
Branch’s escape from a failed marriage to a small, isolated, New England cottage is retold in Martha’s Vineyard, Isles of Dreams. After her breakup, she moves to the island in the middle of winter and where she knows no one. After a brief stay at a bed and breakfast (where she shares an early morning breakfast with the cast of Saturday Night Live, on the island for John Belushi’s funeral), she impulsively falls in love with and buys a small, white-trimmed, shingle-clad cottage and begins the next period of her life.
Susan Branch did not pick up a paint brush until she was thirty years old but quickly fell in love with watercolors and pursued it as a hobby while in California. Now that she was divorced and with no career, she decided to take a chance and combine two of her loves, cooking and painting, and create a handwritten cookbook embellished with her watercolor illustrations. She spent a winter holed up in her small cottage, paintbrush in hand, painstakingly creating the book that would lead to her career and success as a much-loved author and illustrator. Along the way, she becomes a strong, independent woman on one hand, while on the other, embracing her childlike affinity for fairytales and happy endings, all of which is reflected in her work.
The last in the trilogy, A Fine Romance recounts Branch meeting and falling love with her true Mr. Right, their trip to England aboard the ocean liner Queen Mary 2, and the two months spent exploring the English countryside. With a love for anything British, especially Beatrix Potter and English gardens, Branch shares in the same colorful style as her other books, their travels exploring the homes of her literary heroes and the many natural beauties gifted to the National Trust by Potter. Part travel guide and part diary, the book is a vicarious treat.
If you are looking for books brimming with optimism, discover Susan Branch. To get a taste of what is in store, check out her website at www.susanbranch.com.
Katherine Arends is the Branch Manager at the Mebane Public Library and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.