Book Review: So Much More than Spirituality — “Bouquet of White Roses”

By Justin Grosslight

Those readers who embrace spiritual adventure — reincarnation as a mode of family therapy — will be illuminated and entertained by this book.

Bouquet of White Roses: Quest for Truth About Aunt Sue and Me by Lucy Costigan. Enlighten Publishing, 204 pages, $18.25

Ever since her youth, author Lucy Costigan has maintained a predilection for the Charleston, glasswork, and The Great Gatsby — artifacts of Roaring Twenties culture. She also has maintained an enduring affinity for her Aunt Sue, who died of tuberculosis in 1932 at age 20. In an attempt to better understand these uncanny penchants — as well as recurring teenage dreams about a man approaching a grave with a bouquet of white roses — the author embarks  on a revelatory quest. The autobiographical Bouquet of White Roses details the author’s search and its eye-opening conclusion: Costigan is convinced she is the reincarnation of her late aunt.

The fulcrum upon which Costigan’s epiphany hinges is a 1990 spiritual reading by Brendan O’Callaghan. Hailed as an event where “all the questions [she’d] ever had about purpose and meaning in life were being dished up … on a platter,” Costigan learns that her soul has escaped from previous experiences in the ’20s. Sue had died young because her life trajectory had veered off course: rather than being a teacher, as the spirits intended, she was on track to become a wife and mother. Lucy is hosting her aunt’s soul so she can complete her psychic odyssey. A mélange of additional spiritual readings, angel readings, ancestral healings, and regressions vindicates Lucy’s hunch.

More poignantly, these metaphysical forays illuminate a broader family quagmire. Anointing herself in the spiritual realm, Lucy’s deceased grandmother attempts to recalibrate a generations-long power imbalance among kin. Lucy, of course, is the earthly medium tasked to take action. Some of the problems are traced to the union of her aunt Cha and uncle Charles McGovern. Though financially well off, their domestic relationship was toxic: high expectations left their children feeling inferior, overly self-critical, and too impotent to express themselves. Family secrets was another issue — it meant unearthing an ostracized, hitherto-unknown great-uncle along with three of his siblings who died as children. By enrolling living relatives as fellow sleuths in her ancestral probe, Costigan restores her family’s fissiparous arrangements — past and present — to a meaningful whole.

Beyond its compelling otherworldliness, Bouquet of White Roses tantalizes in more concrete ways, particularly the inspiring transformation of Lucy from a 20-something who was “lost in every way that mattered” into a mature and successful adult. As she grows to understand Sue, Lucy trades a well-paid but monotonous programming career for a job in psychotherapy. Working at a spiritual center in Dublin (where she initially had met Brendan O’Callaghan), Lucy cultivates new friendships and, for the first time, begins to savor life. She also drifts apart from her swarthy and manic heartthrob, Philo. In 1997 she relocates to her hometown of Wexford, where she continues to explore therapy and blossoms as an author – writing numerous books, establishing a publishing house, and creating Wexford Life magazine with the help of her cousin Raymond and nephew Michael. Her journey entails travel with emotional growth: a three-year technical writing stint in California and a trip to Thailand deepen her understanding of spirituality.

The book also doubles as a kind of detective story. Tracking down her cousin Raymond, Costigan obtains her first photographs of Sue, the woman’s draught set, and a copy of Louis Granada’s Sinners Guide (1555), which bears Sue’s signature. Each of these items brings Lucy’s sentient relationship with Sue into sharp relief. Complementing these heirlooms, Lucy’s discussions with her elderly aunt May — Sue’s sister — send the former on a stirring visit to Portmarnock Golf Club, where in 1927 Sue worked as a waitress during the first Irish Open. There she served future golf legend Joe Carr and met her beau, Tom. Locating and then visiting Tom’s graveside — as well as tombs of other family forebears — enables Costigan to complete her healing journey. Of course, May confirms that Tom had traveled to Kilrane with a bouquet of white roses to place upon Sue’s funeral grave. Numerous photographs throughout the book illustrate Costigan’s crusade.

Author Lucy Costigan. Photo: Wexford People

For all of its appeal, Bouquet of White Roses has its disappointments. What is lacking is some sustained introspection, a connection with Lucy’s feelings at decisive moments of spiritual illumination. Rather than bringing us into her stream-of-consciousness — rhapsodic, revelatory, or otherwise — the author prefers to stand back and narrate, marveling at the uncanny insight healers had into hidden tidbits of her life (e.g., O’Callaghan knowing about a sibling who poked the eye out of a childhood teddy bear). Costigan’s meticulous description and analysis frequently becomes distracting because it distances us from her personal experience, her drama of self-discovery. Equally confounding is that we learn so little about Costigan’s relationship with her partner. Bouquet of White Roses stresses the primacy of interpersonal relationships, but Tony Walsh remains a liminal figure who never receives a proper introduction.

There are other irritations The family tree at the beginning of the text, for example, proved to be more vexatious than helpful. Some relatives mentioned in the book are absent from the diagram, most notably Costigan’s cousin Raymond and her nephew Michael. Charles McGovern and his children are also missing. Additionally, Costigan’s map of Ireland would have been more efficient if it had only listed sites relevant to her investigation. And her chapter “Back in Dublin, From 1990” is missing from the table of contents. I also had some lingering curiosity about a second previous life that Costigan purportedly experienced in the 1800s. Why don’t readers learn more about that?

Still, Bouquet of White Roses fascinates, particularly because Costigan has found an ingenious way to chart how pernicious behavioral patterns endure throughout generations of a family. Though I cannot relate to reincarnation personally, in this case the belief has led to compelling psychological insights. Those who embrace spiritual adventure — reincarnation as a mode of family therapy — will be illuminated and entertained by this book.

Justin Grosslight is an intellectual interested in examining the connections between technology, society, and business. He has published academic articles in mathematics and history of science, book reviews on a wide range of topics, and several vocabulary development and test preparation books. Along with extensive travel, Justin enjoys entrepreneurial pursuits and provides personalized education counseling to students in America and Southeast Asia.

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