the forgotten garden

At first glance, Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden appears to be a story about Nell, an Australian woman intent on tracking down her mysterious past.  It’s an easy assumption to make, since it’s Nell we meet repeatedly in the first three chapters of the book: first, as a little girl upon the deck of a ship in 1913 in London, then as a young woman coming of age in Australia in 1931, and then upon her deathbed in 2005 with her granddaughter Cassandra at her side.

As Morton abruptly transitions from one era to another, Nell’s story is pieced together.  We learn she was put on a ship in London as a four-year-old and was then discovered by the portmaster in Marysborough, Australia, sitting alone on the docks with a little white suitcase and unable to tell anyone who she was or why she was there.  Taken in by the portmaster and his wife, she was raised as their daughter and had no recollection of her history until her adoptive father broke the news to her the evening of her 21st birthday.  This revelation completely alters Nell’s young life as she attempts to come to terms with the idea that she is not who she has always thought she was.

However, it’s not until her adoptive father’s death, when Nell comes into possession of her childhood suitcase, that her search for her true identity begins.  The key is a book of children’s fairy tales, written by an English woman by the name of Eliza Makepeace.  This book becomes the focal point of Nell’s, and later, Cassandra’s search for the truth.  But it is Eliza that becomes the focal point of Morton’s novel. 

And it’s a good thing she does.  In spite of her past, Nell is not a very interesting character, and somehow, the first 100 pages move both too quickly (jumping from one time period to the next with little or no transition) and too slowly (too much exposition, too little action).  But then we meet Eliza, an orphaned 12-year-old living in poverty on the edge of the Thames at the turn of the century, struggling for survival but with a talent for creating stories.

Eliza’s entrance  immediately provides the book with new life; she is easily the most compelling character of the novel.  Her journey from London to Cornwall, the development of her relationship with her cousin Rose, her fairy tales sprinkled among the other chapters — these pieces of the puzzle are the ones that add brilliant color to what appeared at first to be fairly lackluster work.  As her story intertwines with those of Nell and Cassandra, the novel begins to flow more naturally and the plot begins to sweep you away. 

Though it took me almost two weeks to read the first 200 pages, I went through the final 300 in three days.  I had my doubts at first, but by the end Morton and her Forgotten Garden won me over.   If I run into her work again in the future, I’ll know she’s an author worth giving the benefit of the doubt.

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~ by Molly on February 23, 2009.

One Response to “the forgotten garden”

  1. […] I wasn’t far into Katherine Howe’s The House of Velvet and Glass before it began to feel familiar.  The personal yet third-person narration, the shifting between perspectives and periods, the hint of the supernatural – all of these characteristics made Howe’s novel reminiscent of one of the first books I ever reviewed for bookhopping, Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden. […]

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