Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Forgotten Garden

It's not so much that I hate being outside; it's more that I don't like to get my hands dirty. So, when I was growing up and our summertime daily chores inevitably included hoeing a row or two in the garden, I was always itching to strike a bargain: I would trade house cleaning--top to bottom--for garden work. And my mom almost always took the deal (sucka!).
That said, it quite surprised me to find myself itching to garden as I read this book. But after finishing it and settling back into the couch to ponder my surprising mental state, I realized what I am really itching for: a gardener! I don't want to do the work, but I certainly would not mind reaping the benefits of having a peaceful, colorful outdoor haven (which would be, of course, free of pesky visitors) (I'm talking about bugs) (the annoying kind).

So, on to the book review. But first, a qualifying statement: please don't get turned off by either a) the sheer meaty heft of the book or b) the fact that it spans four generations. The page number doesn't daunt me, but the generational thing--me not likey that sort so much. But Kate Morton (that would be the author) is wise unto the ways of readers like me, and she wrote a generation book even I could enjoy.

Okay, so now I'm going to start in here. It starts in 1913 with a little girl hiding on a ship. She's been told to hide by the Authoress, and she's not quite sure where the Authoress has gone. But she's very good at hiding and she doesn't come out till the ship has begun its journey. She ends up in Australia, alone on the docks with only a small white suitcase including a hairbrush, a dress, and a beautifully illustrated book of fairy tales.

In 2005, that little girl is an old woman and her granddaughter Cassandra sits by her bedside as she dies. And then, after Nell's funeral, Cassandra learns that her grandmother's past is folded and creased with mystery. A few weeks later, Cassandra learns that her grandmother has left her everything in her will, including the deed to a cottage in Cornwall. From there, the novel spirals through the saga as Nell pursues her past, as Cassandra tries to both unravel her grandmother's mystery while recovering from her own losses, and as Nell's mother (shh: I can't tell who--that's part of the mystery) does her own mysterious business.

In other generational novels I've read and loathed, part one is dedicated to the first generation, then part two to the next, and so on. I'd much rather read a trilogy, for just as I'm getting involved in her life story, grandma gets old and dies. And although some of the characters age and die in the course of this novel, it's not so bad. Here's why: Morton changes it all up, chapter by chapter. Although some readers may get time-travel whiplash after skimming from 1900 to 1975 to 2005 then back to 1913, I found it refreshing. Morton is a novelist who knows how to end a chapter well, and she often unearths a clue in one time period and then tells the story behind the clue in the following chapter.

The book feels real, too, whether the chapter is set at Blackhurst manor in its Victorian splendor, or whether the chapter is set in London's Victorian slums--or modern Brisbane (which, of course, is the one in Australia) or London. Not as much info on food as I'd prefer (aside from a lot of broth--BROTH? I know, disappointing, isn't it?), but you can't have everything.

But as I mentioned before, the description of the garden at the end of the maze, the garden outside a cottage perched on a cliff in Cornwall, that garden is what captivated me. That, and the mystery of Nell's unaccompanied voyage across the ocean and the Authoress's beautiful fairy tales. (Yeah, that's right. Three of those fairy tales are retold in the novel. How cool is that? And I'm sorry if you end up wanting to buy the illustrated book of fairy tales. It was a limited edition, single printing. Oh, and also just part of the novel. Not really ever created.)

So, if you enjoy a slowly unfolding mystery, if you have a strong stomach for quick time travel, and if you appreciate the delicate beauty of a garden that may just contain a few fairies, then this is a book you should read.

1 comment:

Ilona said...

be still my heart! We found one she approved of!! :-)