Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

It's been a long time since I've felt this way about a book--over thirty years. Let me explain. As I child, I used to pull off a great disappearing act. I'd bury my nose in a book and cease to exist. I was elsewhere, skipping through gardens or prairies or castles. Nothing could find me, not my mother's voice, the phone call of a friend, nothing. I would eventually return home, dazed by the magic of Harriet the Spy or Strawberry Girl. I don't mourn much left behind in childhood, but I do miss what it feels like to visit those books for the first time.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton returned that feeling to me. My friend T.L. (like T.M., another reader extraordinaire) hand delivered the book, saying it reminded her of The Time Traveler's Wife. Morton's book is reminiscent of TTW in that it jumps here and there among time periods, points of view, and settings. It is a simpler book than Niffenegger's, however. The reader never gets confused because the fracturing of time and space is handled so deftly. We begin with the story of a little girl hiding on a berthed ship in 1913, minding the rules of the pretty lady who brought her there. Where did the lady go? Who is the child? Right from the start, these mysteries form the central cipher of the novel. Back and forth through decades, the story of Nell, a no-nonsense junk dealer in Australia, unfolds, along with that of her granddaughter Cassandra and a motley crew of others. When Nell dies, Cassandra begins to unravel the mystery of her past: a tiny white suitcase containing the yellowed pages of fairytales starts her off and eventually leads her to a hidden garden on an old estate in Cornwall. The reader learns why this garden, like Nell's birthright, has been obscured for decades.

Obviously, title and plot-wise, Morton's book is an homage to Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Secret Garden, another favorite book (and movie). Also, the very best elements of fairy tale and girl-sleuth are mixed into the story as well, and this melange of secret places and princesses and clues is what returned me to tweenhood. Although no one called us tweens in the late 70s. We were just girls, and if we found a good book, you could just watch us disappear.