A Post Victorian Fairy Tale of sorts

The Forgotten Garden: A Novel
By Kate Morton
Washington Square Press, 549 pp., $16.00

New York Times best selling and award winning Australian Novelist, Kate Morton, gets creative with her second novel The Forgotten Garden. Since publishing this novel, she’s produced three more and in sum has sold more than ten million books in forty-two countries. With a background in theater, English literature and a master’s degree on tragedy in Victorian literature, Ms. Morton possesses key skills to weave a tale.

The novel starts in 1913 with an abandoned 4-year old on ship from London to Australia. She arrives with a small suitcase containing a few items, one of which is a beautiful illustrated volume of fairy tales. The dockmaster adopts her and reveals on her 21st birthday the truth. “Nell’s” life falls apart. Decades later, when she receives the suitcase, she begins a quest to learn her identity. She is lead to Blackhurst Manor in Cornwall but ultimately runs into dead ends. Upon her death, her granddaughter learns the truth about “Nell” and resumes the search. The story spans 1900-2005 in a multi-generational format. Our primary narrators are Eliza, the fairy tale Authoress; “Nell,” the abandoned child; and Cassandra, “Nell’s” granddaughter.

In many ways this is a masterful novel. It’s well written, uses beautiful descriptive language, especially with the varying landscapes, and is well plotted. The reveals are always coming, each chapter builds, and all the presented puzzle pieces assemble nicely into an interesting gothic-ish mystery. The inclusion of fairy tales, written by Eliza, is impressive. The clever and plausible references to The Secret Garden add a layer of charm for bookworms. The historical and social world building shown in 1900-1913 further enhances the plot. Rose’s scrapbooks, Mrs. Swindell’s (very Dickenson name!) approach to her young renters, Adeline’s societal plans for her son-in-law, the sensory descriptions of London, the gardens and Cornwall’s fishing fleets, the servants vs. the masters at Blackhurst, and the new medical technologies available at the turn of the century transport the reader back in time.

Yet, there are hiccups. Many of the primary characters seem one-dimensional and their actions fall flat since their motivations aren’t believable. Without getting into spoiler territory, why would Nell’s entire life fall apart when she found out and if it did fall apart, why would her adoptive father wait until his death, 45-years later, to provide her with the one available clue? These and other questions frequently pop up, as characters appear to be plot driven. In fact there were times when the investigative experiences of “Nell” in 1975 and Cassandra in 2005 overlapped. Only by checking the title sub-header did I determine the year and then understood the character perspective. Perhaps the real culprit is the length. The book is too long. It drags the reveals out making them less exciting and, sadly, a few times boring.

While The Forgotten Garden: A Novel is a clever puzzle, with many favorable attributes, its weaknesses may reduce reader enjoyment.

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