Monday, January 31, 2011

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

I know I don't usually write book reviews here, which is all well and good, but earlier this month I invited my blog readers to read The Forgotten Garden with me. I only picked this one because it's the book I read for my first (and last) attendance into a book club. I wanted extra motivation to finish it. Here's my review, thoughts, and analysis of the novel.

It tends to sound a bit academic in spots, but it's how I think sometimes, it's how I wanted to talk about the book-- and trust me, there was more to say. Sorry this runs a bit long!

I hope you all feel free to leave as detailed a comment as you wish, whether you've read it or not!

Fair warning--- SPOILER ALERT- SPOILER ALERT- I am discussing important things that will totally ruin your reading experience, so if you haven't read, but think you will, SPOILER ALERT!!!

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton is one of those huge, sweeping epic stories that spans 4 generations and more than a 100 years. The story is around modern day Cassandra, who is a young widow and an antiques dealers; Nell, her grandmother who raised her; Eliza, the mother of Nell who tried to do right; Rose, the woman who is the cousin and best friend of Eliza; and, finally and briefly of Georgianna, mother of Eliza.

Nell was found at age 4 years, sitting on a suitcase at the ship dock in Australia. The ship-master brings the child home and since no one ever tries to claim Nell or is hunting for a missing child, and the ship-master and his wife can bare no children, they keep her. On Nell's 21st birthday, her father reveals how she came to him. Nell then extracts herself from her family (her parents later finally had children, 4 other daughters), ends her engagement and leaves for parts unknown, on a quest to find how she ended up on a ship.

Nell leads a lonely life, but she does marry and has a child herself. Nell knows she's a terrible mother, feeling disjointed and disengaged from her own daughter. When her own daughter is grown and gone from home and Nell is widowed, she embarks on a journey to discover her real family, the one she never knew existed, the one she can't remember (even though she was four and should remember something, she was sick with fever on the ship from England to Australia and doesn't have any memories). With the help of a clue found in a the suitcase she arrived with, through research, and the aid of a private detective, Nell starts untangling her past. Just when she's about ready to solve the riddle of her life, her wayward daughter arrives and dumps Cassandra, Nell's 15 year old granddaughter, in her lap.

Nell is a better grandmother than mother, does the right thing and raises her granddaughter, then dies before she can solve the mystery of her life.

In The Forgotten Garden we have Cassandra taking up the mystery, journeying in her grandma Nell's footsteps across the wordl to see if she can solve the mystery of her grandma's life. through Cassandra we learn of Nell's own journey, the story of the wild child Eliza and her sickly cousin Rose, and about the humble beginnings of Eliza's life with the tragic loss of her baby brother Sammy and her mom Georgianna.

The story's chapters are chunked into the voices of the various women, through diaries and the voices of other's who knew the various women involved. Eliza, who was a story teller, wrote her own fairy tales and these tales are sprinkled throughout the entire novel.

I loved the story of Eliza the best. She had a such a deep connection to her cousin Rose. She overcame a huge amount of adversity, from losing her mother and finding her baby bother dead, trampled beneath horses' hooves in the streets of London. She was then taken to her "family" where she survived the continuous denigration by her Aunt Adeline (Rose's mother and Eliza's guardian). She and Rose become such close friends, like little soul mates. She has a remarkable personality and it fun and silly; her resilience is admirable. I love the story of her.

I admire the storyline of the novel, though I'm really not one to be a fan of the "grand, sweeping epic" novel. I usually avoid these at all costs. And while I love the intricateness of this plot-line, if falls into the trap of most other "grand, sweeping epic" novels- it's way to long and becomes mired. I couldve hacked about 200 pages out of this and still told the story, and I would've liked it a lot better, too, actually.

I do like the richness of all the characters. The story is a fair tale in and of itself, and then weaves fairytales within so I like that cleverness. The evil aunt Adeline who makes the poor wretched child's life miserable while doting her on her perfect, yet ill, child. The handsome princess, the tragedies.

Something else that I do love is that I didn't have it completely figured out- almost but not quite. I knew that Nell was Eliza's baby but I hadn't figured out the father. It was a toss up between Nathaniel (Rose's husband) and Eliza's creepier Uncle Linus. Eliza and Nathaniel became so close during the writing and illustrating of the fairytale book that I thought they had an affair, but Eliza had such a fierce love of Rose and would do anything to please her, I thought that would see our of character for Eliza. After Uncle Linus attacked Georgianna and with his obsession with Eliza, I thought he raped/ molested her. So the twist at the end, of the final parentage of Nell, with a surprise. I also liked how it all fell into place, why Nell actually arrived on the ship and sailed alone, at age 4 years old.

The dirtiness of turn of the century London lead to the bleakness of this tale. I've studied that time period of London quite a bit because I have a fascination (albeit twisted) with London of that time- so I was secretly thrilled and appalled with this part of Eliza's young life. It was deliciously horrid to think the children played a game called "Ripper" or about Mrs. Swindle being for Fagan-like in her evilness that she robbed the dead who washed up on the shore, or stole frocks right off the little rich girls of London. Oh how Dickensian dark and gloomy this part of Eliza's life, but still an important part of the story.

Rose was the most unlikeable character, I think. I realize she was a product of her evil mother and the creeper Linus but she was so unlikeable. to think she was so close to Eliza and then to turn on her after she gave her the baby. Even as Cassandra reads the scrapbooks, letters and diaries of Rose, we see she never even tells the truth there, that she lives in lies and fantasies. It's sad she couldn't even manage the truth in her own journals! It's sad, really, and her constant worrying and whining became dreary. Yes, it's terrible about the radiation scars and the killing of her womb, and her sickness because of it, but to grow to hate Eliza was just so sad, and showed how small and much like Adaline she really was.

The one thing that puzzled me all the way through the story was a piece of Nell's story. she had wonderful loving parents and doting sisters. She had a such a great life and was shown so much unconditional love and happiness. Her father revealed her secret to her and she changed entirely. Why? Why couldn't she still love the man who raised her, that she called dad/ Why coudn't she still love her sisters? Why did she pull away and become so cold, such a shrew, so unbending and unforgiving? Why? This is what I never understood. I comprehend she wanted to learn where she came from and all the abandonment emotions that went with that, that she needed answers. But why did she change so abruptly? Why become almost a different person entirely? I could see being mad at her father but to shun them all , to become so unfeeling, to grow apart, to not even be able to love her own child. I don't understand the harsh line that was drawn, especially since she was show so much love and affection all her life from those who found her.

As an academic study, I can find I could discuss the book, but I didn't really like it, or enjoy it.

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