Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A century of secrets and lies, tangled like the brambles in The Forgotten Garden

The Forgotten Garden: A Novel
by Kate Morton

Life has dealt me an unfortunate amount of pain of late. More than vicodin, I needed a really great novel to take my mind off injuries. Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden was just what the doctor ordered! It is a triumph of non-linear storytelling, and the epic tale being told carried me away.

The catalyst driving the story is Nell Andrews. Nell grew up loved and happy in a house full of sisters in Australia. All that changed on the night of her 21st birthday. That was the night that her father confessed the secret that upended Nell’s life—he had found her abandoned at the age of four. She’d been left dockside of a ship that had just come from England. She didn’t know, or wouldn’t divulge, her name and no one came for her. He took her home that night, and he and Nell’s mother had raised her as their own.

That revelation changed the course of Nell’s life, but she never had the opportunity to seriously investigate the mystery of her origins until after her father’s death, when she was in her mid-sixties. She made significant progress, but never fully unraveled the truth. As the novel opens, we first meet four-year-old Nell, then 21-year-old Nell, and then the dying 95-year-old Nell. She’s being attended by her devoted granddaughter Cassandra. Cassandra was largely raised by Nell and was closer to her than anyone, but knew nothing of Nell’s secret until after her death. Cassandra’s even more surprised to learn that she’s been left a cottage in Cornwall, England that Nell had secretly owned for years. So begins Cassandra’s quest to finish unraveling the mystery of Nell’s life.

The story jumps back and forth in time, not just between Nell’s and Cassandra’s investigations, but between the actual events that took place between 1900 and 1913 when Nell was abandoned. There is a rich cast of characters from the gothic past, and the story that gradually unfolds is complex, compelling, and utterly gripping. There’s even a cameo by Mrs. Hodgson Burnett herself! I plowed through the nearly 600 pages in record time, and only wish it had lasted longer.
I very much enjoyed Morton’s debut, The House at Riverton. This sophomore effort seals the deal; I’ve become a devoted fan. The Forgotten Garden is one of those books that I just feel so good about recommending to almost everyone. It’s a contemporary mystery, a Victorian drama, a novel of tragedy and triumph, and more than anything else a spellbinding story from start to finish.

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