The Forgotten Garden—Kate Morton

A week of cleaning had left her calves stiff and her thighs sore. Not that she minded. Cassandra drew perverse pleasure from her aching body. It was the indisputable proof of her own physicality. She no longer felt invisible or fragile; she was heavier, far less likely to blow away on the breeze. (389)

This is the second book by Kate Morton that I have read. The first was The House at Riverton, which was a wonderful narrative. Although The Forgotten Garden has a great story at it's core, I was not nearly as pleased with it's execution as I was with my first foray into Morton's world.

I found these two novels on a shelf at Powell's in Portland. (Side note: If you've never been there, you're missing out. Although fair warning, it's impossible to simply browse.) I actually picked up this one before her other and was intrigued by the description on the back cover:
A tiny girl is abandoned on a ship headed for Australia in 1913. She arrives completely alone with nothing but a small suitcase containing a few clothes and a single book - a beautiful volume of fairy tales. She is taken in by the dockmaster and his wife and raised as their own.
Those first sentences were what hooked me, although the idea of the mystery and of Nell (the girl with the fairy tale book) tracking down her own origins were certainly an added bonus. Especially after having read The House at Riverton. Whatever faults I may find with her books, I can certainly appreciate her words. Morton writes beautiful, almost lyrical sentences, one of which I included above.

Ultimately, the story spans several generations. There's Nell, the tiny girl on the ship; then there is Cassandra, her granddaughter who tracks down the resolution of the mystery after Nell's death; later, we meet Eliza, the Authoress of the fairy tale book and star of one of Nell's oldest memories, as well as her cousin Rose. Also, Nathaniel (Nell's father), Linus (Rose's father), Adeline (Rose's mother), Georgiana (Eliza's mother).

Confused yet? Exactly. All of these characters occupy huge portions of the story, and it becomes quite convoluted. Morton skips backwards and forwards to multiple points in time, alternating the character that we are following. Don't get me wrong, I'm fairly adept at keeping track of characters and their stories, but I found this particular structure slightly annoying.

I also found some things in this book to be lazy narrative. Perhaps it was because I was paying more attention this time around. For instance, there's a particular scene when Cassandra has been searching for Nell's suitcase, the one she arrives in Australia with. After a day of searching she is exhausted. Just as she is about to give up her search, a light shines in through the window, illuminating the suitcase. Okay, not as "supernaturally" as that sounded, perhaps. But it still seemed like a bit of a cop out. Perhaps that's why I divined the solution to the mystery about halfway through the book, whereas the same cannot be said for my read of The House at Riverton. It's somewhat disappointing to come to the conclusion so far from the actual conclusion of the book.

Most importantly, I can't decide if the same story structure in multiple novels is comforting or irritating. Romance novelists have definitely made a fortune off of it. Similarities between this novel and The House at Riverton:
  • Grandmother figure is dead or dying and grandchild uncovers and solves mystery
  • Grandmother marries man she doesn't love (after having pushed away one she does) and has child that she feels no maternal attachment to
  • Grandmother and grandchild bond over daughter/mother (respectively) being distant
  • Skipping back and forth from various points in time to increase suspense
  • Key involvement of "domestic" staff, specifically maid
There are others that I can't think of at the moment, but it was evident from the first ten pages of the book that the story structure was eerily similar to the other.

The Forgotten Garden was mostly a good read; I just wish it had been a bit more independent.

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