This book has been on my radar forever, but somehow, I'd never gotten around to reading it. It seems to be one of these books that a lot of book groups are reading. I have to confess, sometimes I'm a bit snobbish when it comes to book group books. There are certain books that become extremely popular with book groups, but when it comes time to choose books for my two groups at the library, I'm sometimes leery -- there are some books that absolutely everyone loves, and I end up hating them. I hated, hated, hated The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which was really popular a few years ago; in fact, I hated it so much I demanded a refund from Target. I also disliked Water for Elephants and I was really underwhelmed by The Paris Wife, which we discussed last month. (Everyone else loved it).
But people kept raving about The Forgotten Garden, so I gave it a shot, even though it's more than 550 pages long. So, if you are one of the 12 other people in the world who has not read this book yet (there are more than 83,000 reviews on Goodreads), here's the setup. Basically, this is a historical mystery, which jumps back and forth between three main characters, following their lives across two continents and more than 100 years.
The book starts about 1905, in Australia. A little girl, about four years old, is found all alone on the docks after a ship has docked -- somehow, she's come all the way from England and no one seems to know her name or who she belongs to. The only clue is a white suitcase with a book of fairy tales. The port master takes her home, and he and his wife (who have been unable to have a child of their own) end up keeping her. The little girl eventually forgets all about this and on her 21st birthday, the young woman, now renamed Nell, learns of her mysterious origins.
Then we flash-forward 90 years and Nell is on her deathbed, with her beloved granddaughter Cassandra. Her final words are something about "The Authoress." Cassandra, who was raised by Nell from the age of ten when she was ditched by her own feckless mother, starts asking questions. Who is the Authoress? Is she Nell's mother? Did she kidnap Nell and put her on the boat? What happened to her?
The story then jumps back and forth between the Victorian and Edwardian eras, explaining the origins of the mysterious Authoress, the book of fairy tales, and, ultimately, the mystery of Nell and how she wound up in Australia alone. We also learn about Cassandra's childhood and her own personal tragedies.
The book jumps around a lot, so I was a bit confused at first about the various characters. However, after the first couple of chapters, which are broken up between the main characters, I was hooked. Morton does a really good job of creating distinct characters and histories, and she's especially good at setting the scenes. I especially liked the earliest time frame, when we learn all about the Authoress -- her back story is really quite Dickensian.
Morton's plot is also really well developed; in fact, I would almost say it's a little too perfect, if that makes sense. There are plot points and characters that are so convenient that some parts are rather contrived, but I'm being nitpicky; also, there were some plot twists that I could spot a mile away. Nevertheless, I really got hooked on the story and wanted to find out how what happened. It's well over 500 pages long, but I hated putting it down and read the last 200 or so pages in a stretch, staying up waaaay past my bedtime the last night. It's long, but it's actually a very quick read.
I can definitely see why it would be popular for book groups -- there's a lot to discuss, and it's not difficult as long as you can keep all the characters straight. I actually coordinate two different book groups for my library, so I'm already planning on putting one of her other books on the list next year for the other book group.
Has anyone else read this? What about Morton's other books? Which one should I read next? And are there any book club favorites that everyone loves that you just hated?