The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The Forgotten Garden is a contemporary attempt to blend fairy tales with rich realistic backgrounds–and so struggles to do either well.
The writing in this behemoth of a book is so good–the descriptions are vivid and thoughtful, the flavor of the words changes with the location, and there is a tapestry of (female) characters (more on that in a moment)–but the plot is so clunky as it strives to wind together a history over four generations of women while also incorporating fairy tale elements that it overbalances itself and becomes pedantic and predictable.
The Forgotten Garden is about the search for heritage spanning generations and time. Cassandra is the main character, the modern incarnation of a streak of women with tragedy lacing their lives. Struggling to find a sense of meaning in her own life after her sudden tragedy, Cassandra takes up the quest begun by her grandmother 30 years prior to find her grandmother, Nell’s, lost family. How was a small child left alone on a ship to Australia? Who would abandon a sweet child with just a book of fairy tales and a white suitcase on a voyage across half the earth?
But the mystery traces back even further, as Morton shows us the delicate familial situation of Nell’s mother and cousin, and the tragedy that pulled Nell’s grandmother from her place of wealth and power.
1860s-Woman leaves rich family, has kids
– Woman is dead, daughter Eliza is rescued by wealthy uncle
1913-Child is found all alone in ship that berths in Australia
1975-Child, now grown and known as Nell, seeks to find out her past; gets interrupted by her own family struggles
2012-Granddaughter of Nell, after her grandmother’s death, seeks to understand all of the prior mysterious history
When I realized that there were no major male characters in this book, that it was literally a rare bird of a story that highlighted women, I desperately wanted to like it. It is almost certain the author pulled her concepts from sweet-but-tragic children’s stories like A Little Princess and The Secret Garden. I love those stories, so I loved those aspects I recognized in The Forgotten Garden, but it’s just too much and the story feels forced.
Perhaps it’s a consequence of the overlapping nature of this story, which flits between women and over eras as the tale unfolds, but the “mysteries” turned out to be pretty predictable–I knew the ending by the halfway point, but still had to slog through the rest of the story–and it was frustrating that, in a non-Gothic modern story, “circumstances” would frequently pop up to answer long-dormant questions. Oh, you happen to enjoy art? Well I happen to have these totally rare sketches on hand, today only! And two pages later, BOOM, you’re related to the artist.
And that kind of thing happened ALL THE TIME.
It’s just too contrived. That kind of magical circumstance would have been great if this story had just embraced itself as a fairy tale, but it insisted on remaining mundane and realistic. You can’t have both frequent miraculous occurrences and realism without both falling short.
This was also a stupidly tragic book. I recommend most of the characters get counseling; does everyone seriously need a deep and painful tragedy to haunt them their whole life? Maybe it’s the genre, I don’t know, but I found it unnecessary. Even in the end, I’m not convinced of anyone’s happiness.
I also have a beef with two of the main “villain” characters. To be fair, the author did try to contextualize and rationalize at least some of their personalities, but it just wasn’t enough. These two were chronic bitches. They were poisonous to all around them–even at the sake of their own happiness. It was so frustrating, and also so shallow. It made the Victorian Aunt, in particular, a one-dimensional meanie. I hoped, the whole time, that someone would push her out a high window (and then, when her “comeuppance” DID come, it was so trite and otherwordly that I just rolled my eyes).
I was hopeful for this book, but ultimately it was a disappointment.