Before I purchased the novel I had a vague idea of what I was getting myself into. I knew that the story had a secret garden, hence the name, and, I'll admit, snagged me from the get-go. Aside from the mysterious garden, I was pretty much in the dark. While I enjoyed this because it was much lighter (well, sort of) and offered me some escape, there was much lacking.
The novel traces the lives of 4 (or 5 or maybe 6) women: Rose Mountrachet, the daughter of Linus and Adeline Mountrachet; Eliza Makepeace, the cousin of Rose, and daughter of Linus's sister, Georgiana; Nell, abandoned orphan, and grandmother to Cassandra. Okay, so there are a lot of women in this novel.
A Short Synopsis:
A four year old is found on the shore of an Australian town with nothing but a tiny suitcase to her name. Twenty years later, Nell's (later Ivory) adopted father confesses this secret, sending Nell on an expedition to find her biological family through clues found in the suitcase. After Nell's death, a note is left for her granddaughter, Cassandra, explaining that a small cottage overlooking the sea has been left for her. Cassandra, dealing with her own scarred past, makes her way to England to finally solve the mystery of Nell's birthright.
Ok. I find that it's almost impossible to include a "short" synopsis for this title. The book was over 600 pages, and, while not as detailed as something you might expect from Tolstoy, it contained enough stories to be anything but easy to explain. I find the review slightly taxing considering the amount of activity going on with each character.
Morton moves through the past and present to complete her story, using fairy tales and gothic literature to build her characters. Eliza, Rose's talented and orphaned cousin, weaves fairy tales to help soothe her ailing cousin, and to express her own desires and disappointments. While I felt that some of Morton's tales were wholly original, many were completely ripped from other well-known fairy tales.
Rose's father Linus, and Eliza's uncle, possesses an unnatural infatuation with his sister Georgiana, who has run away from the family home to follow her love and dies leaving her two children Eliza, and twin, Sammy, at the mercy of a greedy landlord. Once Linus manages to find Eliza, he brings her back to the Mountrachet estate in an attempt to capture her forever. This part of the novel really piqued my interest, it was slightly disturbing like the events in another of my favorites: The Thirteenth Tale; however, Morton briefly throws the lurking Linus around here and there without ever really developing his creepiness.
Upon discovery that Nell is actually the child of other parents, she literally calls off her marriage to a man she loves, and turns a cold shoulder to the family she's loved as her own. While never expressing (she doesn't ever really express much at all, honestly) that she feels betrayed by her family, she suddenly becomes almost obsessed with finding her biological family and plans to leave Australia forever to take her "true place" in England.
That is... until Nell's flighty daughter Leslie, who also makes brief appearances, leaves young Cassandra at her doorstep, altering her plans forever. Cassandra learns of her grandmother's secret after she has passed away. Between Cassandra's personal struggle and the trip she embarks on to uncover her grandmother's family history, there's more drama than a daytime television show.
The novel's key characters all struggle with loss and isolation. The entire tone of the novel is rather dark and sorrowful. The delight of finding love and the hidden garden don't hold enough weight to brighten up the story in any way. It seems that while the garden may have brought joy to Eliza and Rose, while children, it holds dreadful memories of a past that will never again be. For Rose, it becomes a place that must be closed off, a place where life flourishes with utmost ease; Eliza, a prison from which she must escape. Towards the end of the novel, Morton offers Cassandra a fresh start, and also manages to attain the answers her grandmother so desperately sought out during her lifetime.
The novel, while entertaining, was far from anything I'd call exceptional. The characters were mostly unoriginal and lacked a certain depth that I feel the reader really needed to suspend disbelief. I never found myself yearning to pick it up to uncover the next mystery; it flipped so quickly back and forth, and rapidly deployed one shocking incident after another, that I was only reading to finish because so much time had already had been invested. There were moments when the writing was quite magical, but there were far more moments where I felt it was dull and oversimplistic.