Rather than pack a handful of books for reading on my recent vacation, I grabbed possibly one of the thickest books available—”The Forgotten Garden” by Kate Morton. That’s not to say that the plot wasn’t intriguing. A 4-year-old girl is found abandoned on a dock in Brisbane, Australia, possessing only a white suitcase containing a book of fairy tales. The dockmaster and his wife adopt the girl, and on her 21st birthday reveal the truth about her past. The woman, Nell, spends the rest of her life trying to unravel the mystery of her identity, and after her death, her granddaughter Cassandra picks up the pieces. The book entwines the stories of Nell, Cassandra and the mysterious Authoress as it attempts to uncover the events that led to Nell’s arrival in Australia.
I’m inexplicably drawn to historical fiction. So, this book, which moved so easily between the past, the distant past, and the present, had it all for me. Although the length of the book is daunting, I can say it definitely didn’t feel that long. The beginning of the book moves somewhat slowly because the events are so heartbreaking. Also, it takes a few chapters to get into the rhythm of the book which moves quickly back and forth in time. However, the pace picks up once Cassandra begins to investigate her inheritance: a cottage in England.
Cassandra’s investigation is much more than an attempt to figure out who her grandmother is. The book asks a universal question: How much does your past influence who you are? For Nell, knowing a part of the truth about her origins, changed the course of her life and her personality. For Cassandra, the quest to solve the mystery pulls her out of her grief for her grandmother and from a tragic accident in her past. Still, I’m not sure the family history explains the characters’ identities or choices in a profound way. In the end, I was mournful for Nell who had broken away from her adoptive family just because she didn’t feel like she belonged to them. I don’t know that she died happy even knowing part of the mystery.
Yet, the book does touch on the connections between family members, especially the bond between Nell and Cassandra. I think the book does a good job of showing that the family you choose is the family that matters.
Part of the reason the book is so long is because so many characters get to narrate a piece of the story. The result is a book dotted with beautifully painted characters, all of whom the reader gets to know on an intimate level—and most of whom I wanted more time with. Although Morton’s narration style is a pro for the book, it is also one of its flaws. The reader gets a better picture of the motivations of the characters and the mystery than Cassandra does. But perhaps that’s the point: Does anyone ever truly understand the mysteries of her family?
If you’re looking for historical fiction that pulls you in, moves with the pace of a good mystery and makes you consider your own family history, this is the book for you.