It’s 1913, and a four-year-old girl is found on a wharf in Australia, having come across in a boat from England. All she has in her possession is a small white suitcase, and a curious illustrated book of fairy tales. She is soon taken in by a loving family, who fail to ever solve the mystery of where she came from. Years later, “Nell” goes on a journey to find the missing pieces of her history. Thus comes together a rich, complex story line featuring three prominent female voices, sprinkled here and there with delightful fairy tales and other’s points of view.
Quite honestly, though I enjoyed this book and would give it a solid 3 stars out of 5, The Forgotten Garden took a good 100 pages for me to really get into. Here’s the conundrum: sometimes the promise of a story, the feel and look of the actual book, don’t quite live up to the tale itself. I was confused by the back-and-forth narrative the author uses to tell her story – first we’re in 1913, then we jump to the ’60s, then we’re in 2005. And then there’s the innumerable cast of supporting characters to contend with! Once I got acquainted with these things, however, I was able to sink into the story a bit more. I loved the “scrapbooky” feel of the book as a whole. As a lover of folklore, myths, and children’s stories, I really appreciated the interspersed fairy tales. Not only did they help connect the three timelines running throughout the book (they were not idly placed); they were beautiful and symbolic in their own right. It was also fun to imagine the illustrations that were described as going along with them. I found myself wishing the book of fairy tales really did exist!
Now, the part of my review where I reveal my biggest complaint. Maybe this is just me, since I’m obviously a fan of The Secret Garden, but there was something a bit cheeky about how Morton chose to rip off certain details of the original garden classic. Like The Secret Garden, The Forgotten Garden featured an orphan being taken into a big manor inhabited by her creepy uncle, and her subsequent discovery of a walled garden that offers healing to her sickly cousin. Incidently I would have no problem with the recycling of these plot points (even the robin that led her to it!), should a fictionalized version of Frances Hodgson Burnett herself not make an appearance in the book! As it turns out, the author is invited to a garden party at the manor, and gets all inspired. In fact, we’re led to believe that her experience at this party leads her to write The Secret Garden. In a word…audacious.
All objections aside, this is a good book. Despite the halted start, I don’t want to slam an author who’s skilled at weaving a good plot line and ultimately able to keep my attention for 500-plus pages. I’ll put in a good word on behalf of those people I know who adored this book – your adoration is not unfounded, and I will likely be reading other Morton books in future.