Sunday, April 4, 2010
From the internationally bestselling author of The House at Riverton, an unforgettable new novel that transports the reader from the back alleys of poverty of pre-World War I London to the shores of colonial Australia where so many made a fresh start, and back to the windswept coast of Cornwall, England, past and present.
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. On her twenty-first birthday they tell her the truth, and with her sense of self shattered and with very little to go on, "Nell" sets out on a journey to England to try to trace her story, to find her real identity. Her quest leads her to Blackhurst Manor on the Cornish coast and the secrets of the doomed Mountrachet family.
But it is not until her granddaughter, Cassandra, takes up the search after Nell's death that all the pieces of the puzzle are assembled. At Cliff Cottage, on the grounds of Blackhurst Manor, Cassandra discovers the forgotten garden of the book's title and is able to unlock the secrets of the beautiful book of fairy tales.
This is a novel of outer and inner journeys and an homage to the power of storytelling. The Forgotten Garden is filled with unforgettable characters who weave their way through its spellbinding plot to astounding effect. Morton's novels are #1 bestsellers in England and Australia and are published in more than twenty languages. Her first novel, The House at Riverton, was a New York Times bestseller.
An engrossing historical novel that takes on the mystery of why a four year old girl was left alone on an ocean liner en route to Australia in 1913. It lacked the same endearing qualities and warmth I loved in Morton's first book, The House at Riverton. I found it difficult to connect with the many different characters and found not a lot of sympathy for them. Many were not all that likable. The intracacies in the plotline made it interesting and rife with speculation, but I always felt at arms length with everyone, I wasn't inside their heads. Perhaps it was deliberate to keep the mystery - a mystery.
As the story unfolds and the mystery eventually solved, we learn about the little girl, who becomes known as Nell Andrews. What becomes of her in Australia and what does she learn of her true parentage once she is in her 60's and how has it affected her adult life? The story unfolds in flashbacks that switch back and forth with present day. The different perspectives of Nell, Cassandra, her grandaughter, and Eliza Makepeace, the authoress who is the lynchpin in the mystery made it a bit confusing on audio. I think I would have preferred it in print though I got used to it after a while, jumping from 1900 to 2005 in a blink of eye. Caroline Lee, the reader did an excellent job in any case.
We find out Nell is the daughter of an aristocratic family, the Mountrachets living on a large estate in Cornwall, England. Her father was a famous portrait artist who also drew some amazing sketches for a book of fairy tales, the same book that is with Nell when she is left on the ship. It turns out the authoress of the tales lived in a cottage on the same property as the Mountrachets. What was the connection? All Nell remembers is that it was the authoress who took her to the ocean liner and told her to hide and remain quiet until she returned. Alas, she never returns and Nell sails to Australia, amazingly undiscovered by the authorities. Providentially, she is "adopted" by the dockmaster and his wife in Australia. As she grows up, she believes she is their natural child until she is an adult when her father finally tells her the truth. Nell was a hard nut to crack. She was not that likable, she has her issues, stemming from learning about the truth of what happened to her at four years of age. As a result, she disassociates herself from her family, and as she admits herself, she was not the best of mothers to her daughter, Leslie. She was stunted emotionally, a trait that is passed down to her daughter and grandaughter for different reasons.
As the story shifts around, we follow Nell in the mid 1970's, searching for the truth while visiting Cornwall. She buys Cliff Cottage and decides to settle there. But, as fate would have it, she cannot leave because her wayward daughter asks her to take care of her grandaughter, Cassandra who is a young girl. Nell must put her plans on hold. Years later, in 2005, Nell dies and leaves the cottage in Cornwall to Cassandra. Cassandra had been completely unaware of the mystery of Nell and her true parentage. She goes to England to see the cottage and solves the mystery herself through journals and the help of a few new friends. While in Cornwall, she begins to put her life back together after suffering a huge loss ten years earlier.
Meanwhile, we get bits and pieces in flashbacks of other Mountrachets in the early 20th century - Rose, Nell's mother, Linus, Rose's father who is searching for his long lost sister, Georgiana. Georgiana ran away with a sailor and had twins, a son and daughter - the daughter turns out to be Eliza Makepeace, the authoress. There are so many issues intertwined, many side stories, for a while I thought the story involving Linus was going to have some sort of incestuous truth to it, regarding his overwhelming fascination with his sister, Georgiana and then her daughter, Eliza, who looks just like her mother. Linus' wife, Adeline, is an unhappy tyrant, lady of the manor, who comes from a humble background herself, forever trying to live it down and determined to make a brilliant match for her daughter Rose. Rose has issues herself, trying to overcome the illness that kept her bedridden most of her childhood. She wants nothing more than to marry happily and have children - to live a normal life.
In addition to the intersecting stories, the fairy tales parallel the drama in Cornwall and what is really happening between Eliza and the Mountrachets. They serve as a sort of parable, and obliquely reflect Eliza's emotions on the events that occur at Blackhurst Manor. The fairy tales were often disturbing and disarming, not your typical happily ever after endings. On audio, I could have done without the hoaky music that ended and began every chapter, of which there were many - over 50! The music began to annoy me, such time wasters! Although I did not mind the mystical sounding music that prefaced each fairy tale, for it helped differentiate them from the main story and set the mood in that respect. If only they had eliminated the chapters music, and kept only the fairy tale music instead!
By the end of the story, we learn the truth of Nell's disappearance and it was pretty much what I expected in parts, though there were a few surprises I did not expect. I enjoyed this story, though I did not feel as close to the characters in this one, they always seemed to be arms length away. Detached and often enigmatic. No warm and cuddly feeling with any of them. I could not warm up to Eliza for I knew she was the one that "lost" Nell and I didn't know her ultimate reason why, Nell was prickly and Rose whiny and clingy. Cassandra was distant as well - I wasn't crazy about any of them, though I wanted to know what happened to them. The mystery itself is what drove the story onwards. The garden itself - as in the title - that is next to Cliff Cottage is also a part of the mystery, though I wish there had been more to it and the maze.
Not bad, but not great. I enjoyed the Cornish and Australian locales very much. The dialects set the historical and contemporary scenes vividly on audio and made me want to experience them first hand one day. But, I just couldn't shake the melancholy, sinister feeling of the story. The mystery of a child's abandonment is disturbing to say the least and unfortunately it overshadowed the entire book. A sad mystery to be solved, and ultimately sad for everyone involved.
P.S. Happy Easter!