I read a great interview with Daniel Mendelsohn on The Browser a couple of weeks ago on the subject of 'Updating the Classics.' A quote from that int...more I read a great interview with Daniel Mendelsohn on The Browser a couple of weeks ago on the subject of 'Updating the Classics.' A quote from that interview was immediately brought to mind when reading The Forgotten Garden:
[Best-selling author] Mary Renault, a mentor of mine, said that descriptions of sex are the ketchup of literature – a really good dish doesn’t need ketchup.
Two hundred pages in to TFG and I was looking around for the hot dog vendor.A.S. Byatt's Possession and The Children's Book cover much of the same ground (including the fairy tales) and are much better written than TFG, and don't require condiments, and if you haven't read either of those novels you should before you dive into this. You will be well rewarded for your effort.
The story is this: In modern times, Cassandra Andrews, Brisbane native, widow, sometime antiques dealer, is left a cottage in Cornwall (my favorite place I've never been to) by her grandmother. In the 1970s, Nell O'Connor uncovers a mystery at her father's funeral and flies to England to investigate, and in the 1890s, a young street urchin discovers her aristocratic roots and comes to wish she hadn't. It is all very mysterious and the details are given out all at the right time and there was a nice, if expected twist at the end, and all of these women come off authentically and you will root for them.
Life was missing, though. Each of the three main characters, Eliza, Nell, Cassandra, floated as if in a cloud. None were allowed intimate friendships or relationships, none of them allowed a career path or calling or vocation that they could follow with success. Each had lost, under tragic circumstances, their lovers and friends and any hope that they had of families and none were allowed to follow any other dreams. There is some mention, at one point, of a family curse, but it seems an add-on to make a good story - it is never followed up on. The thought of an entire family of women without any vocation or friendships, whose lovers and closest friends are doomed to be taken from them in tragic and awful ways was depressing, unexplained and unbelievable.
All of the men in the book get killed off in one way or another, or are just monstrous half-humans, but, I thought early on, this could just be an entrance point to introducing some lady-loving-lady relationships.But no. This novel is completely sexless also, and what's worse, seems to suffer from complete pleasure anxiety. No one enjoys intimacy, and should they, be in physical or emotional, it spells the doom of their relationship. Child-bearing and rearing (and losing) is a major theme in this family saga but the processes of having children and building families is filled with dread and destruction and dashed hopes(and no character should dare conceive out of wedlock - she will lose her baby. Though bearing children in wedlock is no guarantee, either.)
Cornwall (my favorite place I've never been) is always so atmospheric in novels - so dark and dreary and dare I say it, pregnant with suspense, but here, it seems even the atmosphere of Cornwall has miscarried, and what is left is listless and dull by the emptiness of our characters lives. Though, in the end, at least one of the women is able to find some hope, it comes to late to save this novel.
I will probably read another Kate Morton novel (the writing is very pretty and also mysterious) when I have a week in a beach chair and some Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose melodramatic Victorian mysteries are perfect for the beach, in the bull pen. (less)