The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

This is one of those books with multiple entwined timelines and characters, where you won’t know all the answers until you’ve finished the book.  When a book’s story can stand on its own without that structure, it can add depth and nuance to the tale.  This book, though, just wouldn’t be as intriguing without the withholding of information allowed by the format.

The book starts out in London in 1913, with a little girl alone on a boat headed for Australia.  It then jumps to Brisbane in 1930, where Nell’s father tells her the secret he and her mother had kept from her for 17 years.  Then on to Brisbane in 2005, as Nell lies dying in the hospital tended by her granddaughter Cassandra.  A quarter of the way in the book jumps back to London in 1900, to tell the story of young Eliza Makepeace.  The book jumps between the stories of Nell, Cassandra, and Eliza, with the connections between them becoming clearer as it goes along.

Nell is the little girl alone on the boat to Australia, arriving there not knowing her name and with a suitcase holding only a dress and a book of fairy tales.  This is the secret her father tells her, that she was taken in by him and her mother and adopted.  Learning this leads Nell to search out her own history, to find out who she is and from whence she came.  Due to an illness with a high fever while on the boat from England, Nell has no memory of the time before she was adopted, only a hazy notion of a woman she knew as The Authoress.  When Nell dies, Cassandra finds out her grandmother has left her a home in Cornwall which she never knew she had.  She finds out the secret of Nell’s adoption from her great aunts at the funeral, and she continues the quest to find Nell’s origins.

The most interesting story is that of Eliza, whom we first meet as a wild young girl in London making her way by her wits, working in a rag and bottle shop and coming up with stories that enchant and terrify the other children.  Her mother, recently dead from TB, was from a good family, but had left wealth and prestige behind to run away with a sailor.  Eliza’s family eventually find her and try to tame her into a proper young Victorian lady and companion to her sickly cousin Rose.  That they are not entirely successful is what makes Eliza the best character in the book.  She continues making up stories, eventually getting published, and a few of the stories are included in the book.  Eliza is as wild as her flaming red hair, playing on the rocks down on the coast near her Cornish home, befriending the servants and fishermen, and coming home to tell Rose of her adventures and to annoy her prim and proper aunt with her antics.

I have a terrible habit of skimming through books to find out how they end.  In part it’s because I will stay up half the night reading to find out what happens, and I have enough trouble with insomnia as it is.  It’s also because of my already stated lack of patience.  Sometimes a book is so engrossing I don’t cheat, sometimes I cheat and don’t bother finishing the boring thing.  If a book is truly well written, I can skim and still enjoy how the story works out, just like you can love rereading an old favorite even though you know the story.  I totally skimmed the last half of The Forgotten Garden to allow myself to sleep, and really only finished it to follow Eliza’s story.  Nell, despite the secret of her birth, is quite boring, and Cassandra is mostly interesting because of what she discovers about her grandmother.  I just wish Morton had stayed with Eliza, and not tried to manufacture a mystery with the multiple plot threads.  This would make a good vacation book, with more substance than a beach read so you won’t be embarrassed to be seen reading it, but not so deep as to distract from your relaxation.

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February 9, 2010. Tags: . Books.

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