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-