Book Review: The Forgotten Garden

Posted on August 14, 2010

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I frequently invenet for myself a childhood, or rather, the kind of childhood personality, I believe I should have had.  I should have stolen once from the penny candy tray; I should have liked candy; I should have pranced in red rainboots; I should have made a mudpie; I should have enjoyed carousels.  And I should have relished The Secret Garden.  Alas, none of these turned out to be the case.  I was very much a non-ideal child in these terms.  Mary and her garden didn’t figure into my fantasy life.

It is for this reason that, given the recommendation that Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden resembled Burnett’s classic, that I picked up the former without hesitation, to reclaim false nostalgia.  Yet it would really be unfair of me to reduce Morton’s novel to a shadow or replica.  It is breathtaking fiction all on its own.

The book is long.  The first thing that struck me when I picked it up was its physical resemblance to a brick.  The story opens with death, the death of the protagonist Cassandra’s grandmother Nell.  But the chronology is exploded and shifted in the narrative, so we hear from Nell too before long.  The plot interweaves the tales and voices of three women: Cassandra, Nell, and Eliza.  It is Cassandra who inhabits our world, that of airplanes and Blackberries, but she too is sucked into the fairy story of the generations before her. This is not one of those books about which your English teacher would claim the plot is unimportant (read for the details, they say), so I will not reveal much.  I will only say that the mysterious connections between the women surface as the book moves forward and their narratives run together, becoming more and more indistinct.

I won’t lie–you have to be in a proper mood to enjoy this book.  A cynical perspective will not be productive for your appreciation of it.  Morton is heavy on the symbolism and the foreshadowing (though, to be fair, foreshadowing is somewhat unavoidable in a novel that sees three eras happening together).  It’s a book in which fairy tales mirror reality and Frances Hodgson Burnett even makes a cameo.  It deals with interesting ideas on kinship and accepting, constructing, or rejecting reality, but overall it’s just a fun book.

Morton has teetered a dangerous line between fantasy and cheese and won.  With an open mind, a comfortable armchair, and a whiff of nostalgia (real or fake), The Forgotten Garden makes great leisure reading.  Morton has obvious and endearing love for her characters and plot.  I’ll gladly pick up another of her works again, when I’m in the mood for some escapism.

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Posted in: Book Review