Review: The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton

Have y’all ever seen Wonderfalls? If you haven’t, you really should. It’s basically Dead Like Me with a better premise, a better ensemble cast (absolutely no disrespect meant to Mandy Patinkin, whom I adore — it’s the dynamics between the characters that are better, really), and a stronger sense of what kind of a show it is. Where Dead Like Me gets a bit too grim, and Pushing Daisies can be a little too sweet, Wonderfalls finds the perfect balance. Naturally it’s the one of the three that ran for the shortest time. Anyway, there is this scene in Wonderfalls where the popular girl from the protagonist’s high school is talking about her husband.

Popular girl: I mean, he’s great if I was going to make a list of what I wanted in a husband. Which I did actually. Well, Robert is that list.
Random dude who’s in love with her: He’s the man of your dreams.
Popular girl: He’s the man of my list.

Since I first watched Wonderfalls in 2006, I have had occasion to make reference to this moment on many, many occasions. Mexican food is the food of Legal Sister Anna Banana’s list. Social Sister is the girl of Captain Hammer’s list. (HA HA HA, just kidding, Social Sister! I am sure you are really the girl of his dreams!) And as it happens, Kate Morton is the author of my list. She has got dual timelines; family secrets that are slowly uncovered; Victorian England and Edwardian England and England between the wars; and, in the case of The Forgotten Garden, a cameo by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

But look, I just sailed and waded (respectively) through The Hand that First Held Mine and The Children’s Book, and although I was not entirely happy with either of them, Kate Morton’s writing and plotting simply don’t compare. (Writing and plotting in the case of O’Farrell; just writing with Byatt, sorry, Byatt, I thought Possession was brilliant though) About two-thirds of the way through The House at Riverton, which was a delightful guilty pleasure with enormous mugs of Costa coffee and chocolate twists, I started being deeply annoyed by Morton’s penchant for writing all-predicate sentences (“She paused. Angled the magnifying glass to face the sun. Caught abruptly on fire.”). Man doth not live by predicates alone. This has gotten better in The Forgotten Garden; nevertheless, every time she did it, I found it maddening out of all proportion to how terrible a flaw it really is.

Leaving out my passionate bias against disregard, for the sake of dramatic effect, of perfectly reasonable rules of writing in English (I have my eye on you, Cormac McCarthy), Kate Morton and I simply do not click. The way the characters react to the events of the book does not fall into line with my reaction to the same events, so I am always finding the characters melodramatic or weirdly apathetic. You know how with some authors, they can imbue an apparently tiny event with so much emotional depth that you ache for the characters? Kate Morton is, for me, the opposite of that. Massive events in her books, with severe repercussions all around, utterly fail to move me.

And the cameo by Frances Hodgson Burnett was hamfisted. She shows up and someone tells her about the hidden garden, and she has to go see it, of course, and when they explain it’s the particular garden of an invalid girl, she says something like “A garden that helps to cure a frail little girl! How fascinating!”

Yep. It’s the book of my list.

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53 thoughts on “Review: The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton

  1. Love Wonderfalls! In fact, the other night as I was watching Dead Like Me, I was making the same comparison. I do enjoy Dead Like me, but the plot is much more limited. Loved the characters and their relationships in W. F.; like the ones D.L.M. Hated Pushing Up Daisies.

    Oops, but I do like Kate Morton. I agree The Forgotten Garden was a bit over the top, but I enjoyed it.

    • Agreed. There are some sweet moments in Dead Like Me, but they don’t live up to the love between all the characters in Wonderfalls. They love each other even when they are fighting. ❤

      I'm still going to read Kate Morton's most recent book. I'm hoping she's improving as she goes along.

  2. Well, now I’m torn. A got a review copy of Morton’s newest book. I sort of thought her books were schlocky and sentimental, so I wasn’t going to read it, but then I looked into it, and well, yes, she does seem like an “author of my list” so I figured I’d give her a try. But, gosh, when faux Victorian, multiple timeline, family secret novels fail with me, they fail hard. But maybe her new book is better than this one? Sigh.

    And I love the Wonderfalls reference!

    • I don’t think it’s going to suck or anything. She’s got enough things that I enjoy to keep me reading. It’s not really fair — I read her books, mostly enjoy them, and then post mean reviews about them. There are good things contained within them, but Kate Morton just doesn’t handle those things well. I’d say don’t buy copies of these, get them from libraries or whatever.

  3. I haven’t seen Waterfalls, but I do have a similar problem with Kate Morton. I have only read The House at Riverton, but although I enjoyed reading most of it there were serious flaws. I agree with you about the emotional connection – I didn’t have any. The plot was good, but without that depth it was a bit disappointing in the end.

    • You should see Wonderfalls. It’s great. Hardly anyone saw it when it was actually on TV (for about five minutes). Much much better than Kate Morton, although without resembling Kate Morton in any way. :p

  4. “Kate Morton is, for me, the opposite of that. Massive events in her books, with severe repercussions all around, utterly fail to move me.”

    YES, exactly! I’m afraid my annoyance with this book might also have been disproportionate to its actual flaws, but I couldn’t helped it: the writing drove me crazy enough that I wanted to throw it against a wall.

    (PS: I’m sad you didn’t love The Children’s Book 😛 )

    • I can’t tell if my reaction was proportionate because I know I have expectations from Kate Morton’s subject matter and plot devices. Expectations are a killer. I didn’t hate it or anything. I found it frustrating, that’s all.

      (PS: I’m sad too. I wanted to love it.)

  5. I never watched Wonderfalls (I was living overseas when it started and I don’t think we got it on Armed Forces Network); however, I LOVED Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, so I’ll have to put it on my Netflix queue.

    I think the hamfisted treatment of Frances Hodgson Burnett would be a huge annoyance to me. I’m getting really tired of authors fictionalizing real people and events. Doesn’t anyone have any original ideas anymore?

    • Ha, nobody got Wonderfalls. Literally, it aired three episodes. It’s wonderful though! Put it straight on the Netflix queue!

      I don’t mind fictionalizing real people and events, as a rule, and a cameo from a real historical figure can be a lot of fun. The Frances Hodgson Burnett was a poor example of the genre, that’s all.

  6. I need to watch Wonderfalls, I love Dead like me and Pushing Daisies! But why do they always cancel Fuller’s shows?

    I had a feeling that Morton’s books wouldn’t be for me, too good to be true 😉

    • I don’t knoooooow! They cancel them even faster than they cancel Joss Whedon’s shows. I think it’s all about Tim Minear. He produces everything that gets canceled.

      Yep, Kate Morton is too good to be true. Perhaps try one of her books and go in with the awareness that they’re a bit silly.

  7. I’ve only read The Distant Hours by Morton, which I did enjoy. I didn’t notice the predicate thing — either it’s gotten better or I was seriously out of it, because that sort of thing tends to bug me! I picked up a super cheap copy of The House at Riverton a few weeks ago and plan to give it a shot. Forgotten Garden is, based on reviews I’ve read, last on my list.

    • I bet it’s gotten better. It’s gotten better between The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden, although The House at Riverton had a better plot.

  8. Uh-oh. I put The Distant Hours on my Christmas list, so she really IS the author of my list. But Erin liked it, and I see other commenters like SOME of her books. Hm.

    • Maybe it’s better. The House at Riverton had a really fun plot and the predicate thing was really noticeable, and The Forgotten Garden was better about predicates but with a lame plot. Perhaps The Distant Hours finds the balance.

  9. I’ve heard that The Forgotten Garden is both wonderful and far from it … I don’t know which to believe! I guess maybe I should just read it for myself? I mean, it has been sitting on my shelf for almost a year now.

    • Believe me! I am reliable. 😉 No, actually, I’d say it’s worth a read but it’s not the best book you ever saw. As long as you’re prepared for that, I’m sure it won’t be a disappointment.

  10. Fantastic Wonderfalls reference. Though it was canceled prematurely, it’s a good thing the producer had learned from his experience with Firefly and put a decent ending to the season, in case it was the end of the series, which it was.

    I am also a hater of all-predicate sentences. In my experience, this style comes up a lot in young adult novels. I think writers use it because they think it makes their writing punchy and dramatic. I think it just makes the writing look lazy.

    And I love the snow!

    • Dude, I KNOW. I was so worried about what was going to happen in that last episode. I couldn’t imagine how it could end up being satisfying.

      You are exactly correct about writers seeming to think their writing is punchy. It’s not punchy. It’s terrible.

  11. You’ve put perfectly my feelings about reading this. It seemed like the book of my list too, mostly for The Secret Garden connection (and also because The Lost Garden, also inspired by above mentioned title, is excellent) but whenever I look at it, I’m turned off. I’m going to try The Distant Hours and see how we get on, that one at least looked slightly more intriguing when I actually read a sentence or two, but I’ll just have to get my hopes down on this one…

    • What is The Lost Garden? I’ve never heard of that — or if I have I forgot. :p

      You might try The House at Riverton, depending on how much writing issues bother you. That one had more of the obnoxious writing, but also a better plot. Soooo….up to you.

      • The Lost Garden is by Helen Humphreys and I try to promote it as much as possible, it’s set on an English country estate in WW2, about a group of the Women’s Land Army growing potatoes on the grounds and the Canadian soldiers they interact with. It’s gorgeous and much better written than anything I’ve seen by Kate Morton. (And for an added recommendation, Claire likes it too, we discussed it the other day!)

        I’m going to try The House at Riverton from the library (in large print, since that was the only copy left) and see what I think of it.

  12. I totally agree about Wonderfalls/Pushing Daisies/Dead Like Me. I’ve watched and enjoyed all of them, but I think the sense of humor in Wonderfalls just hits the right spot for me. It is so sad that it was cancelled. I mourn it in much the same way I mourn Veronica Mars 😦

  13. Morton’s writing seems to be a funny animal to me. On the one hand, almost everyone I have spoken with has felt lukewarm about The Forgotten Garden, but still has rushed out post haste to buy her new one, The Distant Hours. This same thing happened with The House at Riverton as well. I just don’t get it, and I admit to getting caught up in it too. I have not read anything by Morton yet, but there is just a fervor about The Distant Hours that I am all caught up in. I do hope it doesn’t let me down, but then with all this hype, how could it not?

    • You know, you are totally right. I am not rushing out to read The Distant Hours, but I’m probably going to read it at some point, if I see it at the library. No hype. Just hope. :p

  14. I love this concept of the book of my list. Not to mention the man of my list (quite opposite to the man I actually married, it has to be said). I have the next Kate Morton to read, and have heard good things about it – hopefully both the grammar and the plor are much improved from this one!

  15. Hmm, this post just pushes me to watch more TV. I’d never heard of Wonderfalls, and Kim is about the fifth person I’ve noticed this month to rave about Veronica Mars.

  16. That drives me crazy, when authors include a significant or extremely emotional event in a book but the characters don’t react appropriately or convincingly. This seems to happen a lot in urban fantasies which are pretty light hearted until the author thrown in a torture or rape scenes which the characters kind of just float through, untouched. This really irritates me.

    • Yes! That’s actually one reason I don’t read a lot of urban fantasy — that, and I don’t know what the good authors of it are, so I don’t know where to start.

  17. Okay, I love both Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies (and am mourning their respective cancellations), so I think I am going to have to watch Wonderfalls ASAP.

    Anywho, one of my coworkers was just gushing about how awesome The Forgotten Garden was… guess I’ll have to take it with a grain of salt!

    • I don’t understand how everyone missed Wonderfalls and yet knew about Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies. Wonderfalls is much better. I swear.

      I always feel awkward when people gush to me about books that I thought were just okay. I don’t want to tell them they have bad taste, even though they do. :p

  18. Anyone who uses Frances Hodgson Burnett so poorly is not getting me as a reader!!

    I feel I missed out on something good by never seeing Waterfalls. I’m guessing it never made it England! Maybe it’s on that website you keep telling me about?! 😉

  19. I’ve always wanted to read Kate Morton albeit in a very mild sort of way but your review isn’t very encouraging. I also saw it tagged as “family tragedy”, so will probably end up not reading this one

  20. I’m a Pushing Daisies girl, but that’s because OMG I’m in love with Ned. Puppy dog eyes!!!

    Anyway, House of Riverton annoyed me: it was so incredibly derivative. And not cool or conscious derivative…just cookie cutter. So I’ll be avoiding all of Morton’s books; I’m glad you have reaffirmed that decision. 😉

  21. I HATED The Forgotten Garden. I passionately hated this book and finished it only because I had to read it for a new book group I agreed to attend. This book contains the worst cliches — thick fog slides its fingers into the cracks and crevices of Victorian London; main characters are tall and thin while the secondary characters and servants are short and look like two dumplings sewn together at the waist; characters bite their lower lip, inhale sharply, widen their eyes in amazement as their eyes fall by chance onto some incredible clue, etc etc. It made me want to scream. And deep dark secrets are conveniently revealed by journals and letters that just happen to show up in some hidden box in some basement. The whole thing made me crazy. One potentially interesting plot relating to sexual abuse did not develop. Really a horrible book.

  22. I just finished The House at Riverton, and I enjoyed reading it. Loved your review, and I can see the flaws in her writing that you’ve mentioned, but they don’t bother me enough to dislike the book.

    Just wanted to mention re the Frances Burnett cameo: Agatha Christie shows up in The House at Riverton at a dinner party. There is mention of murder, and Agatha makes a pithy comment about preferring poison. Similar effect, eh?

  23. Pingback: Review: The Secret Keeper, Kate Morton « Jenny's Books

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