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.

Revolution, Jennifer Donnelly

I’ve said before that I like the kind of novel where you have two sets of characters in two different time periods, and the novel goes back and forth between them. Especially when one of the sets of characters (the modern one) is researching the other set (the old-time-y one.) So when I saw that Jennifer Donnelly, beloved of the blogosphere (that is you) for her Rose books and then Northern Lights, had written a book of this sort, I was…well, I was mildly intrigued. I thought I might get it from the library sometime if I remembered to.

Then I got a new job, and I had to move away from everything that is familiar to me, and go off into the unknown and do everything new and different. Then Indie Sister came into town to bid me farewell, and we went to the bookshop, and it turns out that when we are stressed, we buy things. Like books. When we were at the Bongs & Noodles, I saw Revolution and I was like I MUST HAVE THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY FOR MY LIFE IS INCOMPLETE WITHOUT IT.

My life was probably not incomplete without this book, but it was a pretty damn good book. It is about this girl called Andi who is struggling to recover from her little brother’s recent death. She has become completely self-destructive and miserable, so her parents decide she must go off to Paris with her scientist father, there to do her homework and start behaving like a real person. While she is there she discovers a diary belonging to this acrobat trickster actress girl from the French Revolution.

Initially I found Andi trying. The build-up to the revelation of what had happened to make Andi so embittered and miserable went on and on and on, and by the time it got properly revealed (as Jill said), Andi would have had to have orchestrated 9/11 for me to feel like all the angst and stress were merited. The book was slow to start, I admit, but once Andi got to Paris and discovered the diary and met the interesting people she met, I couldn’t put it down. I was so impressed that Donnelly managed to make the characters and plotlines of both her main characters emotionally interesting. Even the minor characters were pretty well fleshed-out.

There was just this one thing that kept me from loving it. I hugely did not like the way the book handled mental illness – or actually, the way it handled mental health facilities. It was very much all this “If Van Gogh  had had Prozac we wouldn’t have his beautiful art” and, like, mental health professionals willfully refuse to understand you, and the characters getting “put” into mental institutions even though THEY WERE GETTING BETTER OMG WHY ARE YOU DEPRIVING THEM OF THEIR ART. It wasn’t even a thoughtful version of these arguments, which I would have liked reading, but rather the typical, simplistic, kneejerk version that you get in every third book and film and TV show. I gnashed my teeth in anger.

Otherwise very good! My introduction to Jennifer Donnelly was a slightly qualified success! And now that I have my very own brand-new New York Public Library card, I can go forth and investigate the rest of her books. Hurrah!

Who else has read it:

my Mumsy (but she hasn’t reviewed it yet. Too bad for you.)
Rhapsody in Books
Fyrefly’s Book Blog
Good Books & Good Wine
Killin’ Time Reading
Love YA Lit
The Fourth Musketeer
Book Sake

Tell me if I missed yours!