Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton

This is a book that I listened to, and that might be the reason this review is going to be so negative. Perhaps if I had read it, I could have sped through some of the more tedious portions and had a different impression of it. As an audio book, however, I was at the mercy of the narrator, and I basically suffered through every damn syllable of a book that would have benefitted from being cut down by at least a third, if not a full half.

The story follows three women through different time periods: Eliza from 1900-1913, Nell from 1975-76, and Cassandra in 2005. The plot concerns the search for Nell's past; she was found sitting alone on a wharf in Australia in 1913, with only a child's suitcase. Inside the case was a book of fairy tales written by Eliza Makepeace. In 1975, Nell travels to England to track down what clues she can about who she was before she ended up in Australia. In the end, it is up to her granddaughter, Cassandra, to solve the mystery.

Roughly the first third of the book establishes Nell's and Cassandra's lives in Brisbane, Australia, and boring lives they are. Nell did not remember anything about her life before Australia, and so she freaks out when her "father" tells her about how he found her and took her home. He waited until she was 21 to tell her, and she gets all whiny and self-righteous about it. She withdraws from her sisters, but refuses to tell them why. She breaks her engagement to the nice boy she was going to marry, and also refuses to tell him why. Then she lives the rest of her life in Brisbane, at some unspecified time marrying and having a daughter--apparently solely for the purpose of having a grand-daughter who can advance the plot.

Nell's adoptive father finally dies in 1975, and only then does he send her the little white suitcase with the book of fairy tales. Because--well, I don't know why. Why would you tell your child she was adopted--and witnessed her extreme response to the news--and then withhold what little evidence there is about her origins? So, eventually--by about the mid-point of the book--Nell goes off to discover her past.

Grand-daughter Cassandra was raised by her grandmother Nell, and was living in the house with her when Nell dies in 2005. It takes a while for Morton to give us her back story, but apparently she was dropped off by her mother (Nell's daughter) for "a couple of weeks" but stayed until she went to college. There are some undated college years, a marriage, a child, and a tragic auto accident, after which Cassandra moved back to Nell's house and lived a boring life. Only once Nell dies and leaves everything to Cassandra does she discover Nell owned a cottage in Cornwall. After quite a lot of boring exposition, Cassandra also goes off to discover Nell's past.

All this set up takes the first third of the book, and really we learn more than we want or need to know about the characters' boring lives in Brisbane. Only when the story reaches England does the plot take off.

But not quite yet! Oh no, there is some more exposition necessary--we get the story of 12 year old Eliza Makepeace and her twin brother Sammy. They are living in poverty in London, some two years after their mother's death. We get some Dickensian cliches about the nasty landlord and his nasty family, some stupid game Eliza and Sammy play called "The Ripper," and Sammy's death. Oh yeah, he was fragile and dependent on Eliza and hardly ever spoke--he was doomed.

Eventually Eliza gets found--her mother, the glamorous Georgiana, was the daughter of wealth in Cornwall, and her brother never stopped looking for her. Eliza gets packed off to Blackhurst Manor (and isn't THAT a terrible name for a house--who's going to be happy in a place called "Blackhurst?") There she finds her creepy uncle is lord of the manor, he has married a cold and nasty woman, and they have a sickly but beautiful daughter named Rose. Rose and Eliza become best friends, and Eliza starts telling stories to Rose. Fairy tales.

The three women's stories start to develop in parallel. Eliza does something, Nan discovers part of what Eliza did, Cassandra finds out a little bit more. Sprinkled through the book, like lumps in mashed potatoes, are the "fairy tales." Leaden and boring on their own, they only become mildly interesting when we find out the real life situation behind the fairy tale. We are also treated to a number of ominous pronouncements about how the cottage is "cursed" and "haunted."

Because a novel this melodramatic has to have a Big Secret--possibly a Big Shameful Secret, and it takes a ridiculously long time for the characters to figure it out. Of course, as readers, we figured it out a long time before the characters do. The Big Secret is that beautiful Rose cannot have children, and so Eliza has one for her. This requires that Eliza sleep with Rose's husband, an artist who illustrates the book of fairy tales. The resulting baby is Nell. But Rose and her husband are tragically killed in a terrible train wreck, so Eliza grabs the child and plans to take her to Australia. Because there is no way she is leaving her baby with the creepy uncle and his nasty wife. Eliza gets the girl on board the ship, but is intercepted by creepy uncle's minion and carried back to Cornwall. She tries to escape and dies while jumping from the carriage.

So little Ivory is left alone on the ship, and manages to hit her head and get amnesia, and is somehow put off the boat in Australia, where the kindly but childless wharfmaster and his wife take her in and name her "Nell."

There are all kinds of trouble with this plot. First of all, in an age of in vitro fertilization, surrogate mothers, and open adoption--the "Big Secret" is really not at all shocking. There is not any threat that anyone in 1913 is going to find out about it--it's only the readers who are set up to be shocked and horrified. And frankly, we aren't. And not only because it's not shocking, but because the Big Secret is all but telegraphed beforehand.

Creepy Uncle Linus was obsessed with his beautiful red-haired sister, Georgiana. When Eliza comes to Cornwall, she looks exactly like her mother, including the red hair, and creepy Uncle Linus becomes obsessed with her. When Eliza leaves Blackhurst Manor to live in the cottage on the cliff, creepy Uncle Linus becomes obsessed with red-haired Ivory/Nell. Who looks just like Georgiana. While Rose and her husband are both dark haired. Where could that red hair have come from?

Meanwhile, the incredibly clueless Cassandra fails to put the hints together--Nan and Eliza and Georgiana all had red hair; Eliza "went away" for most of a year right around the time the baby was born; the "inexplicable" actions of Eliza taking Rose's baby (why would she do that?)--and instead concludes that Nan is the child of a housemaid who was dismissed for being pregnant out of wedlock. Morton actually drags this non-starter of a plot out for about three chapters before someone actually has to spell it out for the characters.

And what about that "Forgotten Garden" of the title? It's not forgotten at all. In fact, almost everybody knows about it--it's Eliza's garden where she wrote most of her fairy tales. Ivory/Nell visited it as a child. Cassandra finds her way in and restores it. Frances Hodgsen Burnett even visits it--and (surprise!) thinks she might write a book based on it.

Really, this plot is too ridiculous. Nell's father holds clues to her past for 45 years before passing on the suitcase. Then Nell lives the last 30 years of her life never returning to Cornwall--even after raising Cassandra and seeing her off to college, marriage and her own family, Nell never follows through on her plan to move to the cottage--not even visiting it again. Eliza puts her daughter onto a boat to Australia, then leaves for "one last errand," where she gets killed. I just found myself rolling my eyes. Frequently.

Honestly, this book seemed to take the 96 years of Nell's life span to get to the point. Don't waste your time. Grade: C-


Queanhead said...

I have just read Forgotten Garden for a book club and, like you, did not enjoy it. However, I'm curious whether anyone else came to the dark conclusion that Ivory/Nell was not Nathaniel's daughter but in fact Linus', as was her mother Eliza. I think there are many 'clues' buried in the last third of the book and Nathaniel is an obvious 'red herring'.

Cate Ross said...

I had to re-read this review to remember who everyone was. I think Creepy Uncle Linus probably had incestuous relations with anybody he could catch--so maybe Eliza was his daughter? I think Eliza and Nathaniel probably were Ivory/Nell's parents, just because then we get to have a Doomed Romance added to the mix of Gothic cliches. But I wouldn't rule out anytning--the more twisted the better is my take on this book.

Dimplemeier said...

I personally loved both the book and the audio book! I thought Caroline Lee did a great job at narrating it, and i always look forward to reading/listing to it again!
I guess it's just one of those personal things!

Kyle Larsen said...

Damn, if you're aren't spot on right about this book.

liz said...

I know you wrote this review a while ago but would just like to say I agree wholeheartedly with you! Our book group ( in Cornwall and with an Austarlian member ) have just read this and discussed it over a few glasses of wine last night.
Some loved I thought there were far too many cliches and like yourself, I did a lot of eye rolling throughout. I had to keep reminding myself who's mother was who and by the end of it I didn't really care!
Great blog by the way, and I will be nicking some of your reads for future book club choices.

Mrs. Williams said...

I liked this book a lot. I'm retreading it for my book club but wanted a summary because I'm too impatient to wait for all the explanations (again).

Your review was great. I laughed out loud as you really are spot-on. And I liked the book! Thanks for your review.

Anye Bower said...

I loved this book. I think the plot reflected takes along time to make sense of our past, and sometimes we die without knowing. Along the way, we form relationships and misshapen theories about what where our life came from and what it means.

There was only one thing that I felt could have been expounded more, and that was the nature of the relationship between Eliza and Nathaniel. They seemed as if they became good friends, found in each other a soul mate, and were intimate. I find it difficult to believe that they stayed apart for four years afterwards, even thought they were neighbors and each were unhappy and empty. At the very least, I feel as if Kate should have alluded to the difficulties they must have had not thinking about each other and being with each other.

However, I really liked that Kate didn't turn it into an adulterous relationship where both parties feel as if their life is tragically incomplete without each other. Instead, Kate wisely let us know that Nathaniel and Eliza felt incomplete because of other things in their lives--Nathaniel couldn't make a break with his mother in law, and Eliza could not forgive herself for giving up her child.

Also, I really thought that Linus was going to play into the plot more. Kate always seemed on the verge of revealing that he has incestuous relations with his sister, niece, or daughter...but that never came up, and we did not even really get a glimpse into his reaction on the death of Eliza or the disappearance of Ivory.

And one more thing--does anybody know if Cassandra ever figured out that Nathaniel was Nell's father?

The purple haired fangirl said...

THank you for this synopsis. I'm listening to it and going nuts over the impossibly long and boring detail- where are all the good editors gone. You've saved me about 10 hours. On to my next book. Hope it's better.

Sara Jolie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Natalie said...

This comment is coming years after this post, but thank you thank you for your review! I have been struggling to read this book for book club and I just had to find out if it was worth continuing to plow through. I will give it a second shot after giving it a break, and if I still can't get into it, at least I know what happens and can still participate in the discussion. (And I can feel justified in not finishing or liking this book!) There needs to be a condensed version of this thing!

Carla Devereux said...

This comment is years after the first post. I've recently re-read The Forgotten Garden and loved it as much as I did first time round and am using it as part of an MA assignment in Creative Writing. Kate Morton is adept at developing robust characters from the onset. She skilfully handles the protagonist’s internal conflict in the face of external struggles. She draws the reader in through a well-formed inner world where she plays on the characters’ fears, vulnerabilities and self-denial. The interweaving of characters and backstory is Morton's style, she does it with all her books. If this one has created such a negative reaction in a reader, then perhaps this style of narrative is not for you.

Unknown said...

I agree with you. Linus is not Nell's father. This is actually my favourite of Kate's books.