I’ve had Kate Morton on my to-read list for quite some time now; I’ve seen rave reviews of her work on various literary-type blogs, writers whose judgment I trust, and since I thrill with delight over a historical novel, I knew I couldn’t resist her for long. On a recent library visit, I stacked up three of her novels on my arm: The House at Riverton, The Forgotten Garden, and The Secret Keeper. When I came home that day, I sheepishly told my husband, “I might have bitten off more than I can chew this time…” Thank goodness for online library renewals!
I finished The House at Riverton, Morton’s debut novel, about a month ago, and honestly, I was underwhelmed. First of all, the story horribly depressing, which is not, I must clarify, an automatic deal-breaker for me. I actually appreciate (I don’t necessarily want to say “enjoy”) a sad and melancholy tale now and then, provided it also has redemptive qualities—life, after all, does not always include a Hollywood happy ending. I also tend to find depressing stories deeply emotionally compelling, and far more thought-provoking than the average “fluff” read with no lasting message. However, in addition to the depressing nature of the story, several of the characters in Riverton fell flat to me, and also, I predicted the major plot twist long before it happened, which is always unfortunate as a reader. [Incidentally, Riverton is basically Downton Abbey in novel form, so much so and with such eerie similarity that I finally Googled to see which one came first. Kate Morton did. To which I say, really, Julian Fellowes?!?]
I refrained, however, from passing full and final judgment on Kate Morton after reading Riverton, knowing that I had two more novels to try. I have slowly worked my way through The Forgotten Garden over the past several weeks, and I finally finished it yesterday, flying feverishly through the final pages and dying to know how the story would turn out. Although it still ends with a depressing finale, I felt less disturbed than I did after finishing Riverton. The characters felt more richly developed—and I certainly did not see that plot twist coming. Because the story spans multiple timelines and a rather confusing cast of characters, I found myself wishing I had started a “family tree” at the beginning, but I eventually got everyone straightened out.
Morton’s prose shines brightly in Garden, and a couple of times, I found myself taking pictures with my iPhone of a handful of delightful passages such as these (I would have highlighted had the book not belonged to the library!):
“Ever since Eliza had discovered the book of fairy tales in Mrs. Swindell’s rag and bottle shop, had disappeared inside its faded pages, she’d understood the power of stories. Their magical ability to refill the wounded part of people.”
“What a delight it was to have a place of one’s own, an entire garden in which to Be. Sometimes Eliza liked to sit on the iron seat, perfectly still, and just listen. To the windblown leaves tapping against the walls, the muffled ocean breathing in and out, and the birds singing their stories. Sometimes, if she sat still enough, she almost fancied she could hear the flowers sighing in gratitude to the sun.”
“A story idea began to flutter on the edge of Eliza’s imagination; she snatched at it, refused to let it go, held on as it grew arms, legs, and a clear destination.”
I thoroughly enjoyed The Forgotten Garden, in short, and I can’t wait to dive into The Secret Keeper, which I have heard described as Morton’s finest and which I have intentionally saved until last. Hopefully it will not disappoint!