I was ready to love this book from the moment I heard about it. The Secret Garden is one of my favorite books, and stories about family secrets and hidden rooms and stuff like that are like catnip to me. And the bare bones of this story is indeed pretty satisfying. Unfortunately, the execution of it ruined most of my enjoyment, and I decided halfway through that I wasn’t going to read any more of this author’s books. I’ve been really excited about two of her books now, and both have been completely underwhelming for the most part, and frustrating more often than not.
So, no more Kate Morton for Ashley. No use trying to shove a square peg into a round hole over and over and then complaining and crying when it keeps not fitting.
So anyway, the book.
The Forgotten Garden follows three women through about a hundred years of history, but their narratives are all mixed up with one another so as to preserve the mystery of what actually happened until the very last minute. First, there’s Nell, who was found as a little girl abandoned on a dock in Australia and taken in by a lonely childless couple, who then raised her as their own. Where did she come from, and why was she alone on that dock at four years old? Then there’s her granddaughter Cassandra, who becomes wrapped up in the mystery of her grandmother’s past after Nell dies and leaves Cassandra a mysterious cottage in England. And finally, there’s “the authoress,” aka Eliza, who is connected somehow to both women, but who is known to history for having written a collection of beloved fairy-tales and then slipping off the face of the earth.
See, that sounds awesome, right? I would totally want to read that book if I read my description. Hell. I still want to read that book. Unfortunately, that book turned out to be disappointing for me for lots of reasons, among them:
- More often than not, Morton’s ponderous writing goes for the obvious connections and phrasing, but seems to think them not obvious, which makes her writing and her characters have a lot of moments where they come off as having been hit by the stupid stick. It’s been over a month since I finished, so I’ve forgotten most of the details I could use as examples.
- It’s not inconceivable that a woman (Nell) could have such an intense reaction to finding out she’s been adopted after having spent her whole life believing she wasn’t. But from what Morton chooses to show us of her story, Nell’s reaction comes off as extreme, and makes her seem rather horrible. Sure, these people adopted her in sketchy circumstances, but that doesn’t negate the fact that she loved them, they loved her, and her sisters did nothing to deserve the sudden emotional distance she put between them. Was her identity so fragile that just finding out she didn’t share the same genetics with her loving family was enough to break her? I didn’t buy it at all. There are more instances of lazy character work like this for most of the characters in the novel, but this one was the most egregious for me.
- I liked the idea of the alternating timelines and POVs, but Morton’s sense of dramatic tension in how she deploys them was totally off. Most of the time, we would get some sort of revelatory information in Cassandra’s or Nell’s timelines, and then Morton would show us those same events in flashback form in excruciating length, presenting no new information when doing so. I suppose if you as a reader were super in love with the characters, this would not have been a problem for you, but I wasn’t, so it was. I kept thinking, get on it with already! We just learned this five minutes ago!
- There were some moments where the story got over the top ridiculous and I physically could not stop myself from rolling my eyes. This more than anything convinced me that I should stop reading her stuff.
- Morton actually writes out several of Eliza’s fairy-tales for us to read, which was sort of gutsy, because what if they sucked? They don’t suck, but they also don’t enchant, and I think we’re meant to think they’ve better and more awesome than they come off. Thankfully, they aren’t just there to enchant us, they also serve two other purposes: to foreshadow the overall story of the book, and to provide insight into the mystery of Eliza Makepeace and her story. They’re symbolic in the world of the book, and symbolic of the book itself.
I’m pretty sure there was other stuff I wanted to say about this book, but it’s been too long and I’ve forgotten. I can see how this is a book many people would love, but I’m not one of them. I would say if you’re considering reading some of Kate Morton’s books, this is definitely the better of the two I’ve read by her, so starting here would be a good idea. If you like this one, you’ll like her other books, too.