“Imagine that you live on a picturesque communal garden square, an oasis in urban London where your children run free, in and out of other people’s houses. You’ve known your neighbors for years and you trust them. Implicitly. You think your children are safe. But are they really?
On a midsummer night, as a festive neighborhood party is taking place, preteen Pip discovers her thirteen-year-old sister Grace lying unconscious and bloody in a hidden corner of a lush rose garden. What really happened to her? And who is responsible?”
My Thoughts: I have struggled and therefore postponed writing this review. I did this for a variety of reasons. A few reasons were related to time and an inability to concentrate when trying to write. Others had to deal with my reactions to the book itself. The thing is that no matter how often I think about the story, my opinions about it continue to fluctuate. None of my feelings are overly strong either. To use the
awful onomatopoeia “Meh” as a main descriptor of my feelings would be too easy and unfair to the story because my opinions are decidedly more complicated than that. So, I plunge into this review still struggling to put into words exactly what I think about The Girls in the Garden.
The idea of a communal garden around which several houses dwell, one where the people who live on the edges of the garden are all friends with each other and know everything about each other’s lives, is in many ways a bit too foreign for American readers. Perhaps I am wrong, but in my experiences, the days of impromptu block parties and intimately knowing your neighbors are a thing of the past. These days, the norm is more an annual get-together to which only half the neighborhood attends, and you wave to each other from the safety of your car or driveway during the rest of the year. Kids no longer roam the parks or neighborhood unattended. SO, to read about a neighborhood in London in which the kids are almost always alone and frequently out of sight of an adult is unusual. I get the appeal, and in many ways, Ms. Jewell makes these garden neighborhoods sound absolutely lovely. It makes me mourn the loss of a more carefree time in which our own neighborhoods were more social.
Yet, because the story starts out with the discovery of Grace’s unconscious body, readers are immediately suspicious of these very same idyllic garden oasis. As readers get to know Pip and Grace’s new neighbors, as seen from various characters’ vantage points, it becomes clear there is no such thing as a perfect neighborhood. Too many of the inhabitants have secrets, even though they all fail to realize this fact when interacting with one another. It is an odd situation, and one that never improves as the story unfolds.
Another odd bit, to me anyway, is Clare’s attitude towards her past. She is so ashamed of her husband’s mental illness and his actions when off of his medications. I can understand being upset/angry/sad and every other combination, but shame baffles me. It is not her fault, and his actions are not her actions. I do not understand her unwillingness to hide from her neighbors solely because they might find out her “shameful” secret. While I understand the reasons Ms. Jewell creates her this way – her attitude is in direct conflict to the rest of the neighborhood and provides not only conflict for the story but also a point around which the character can develop – I personally do not agree with the choice.
The one part Ms. Jewell gets right is in the kids’ interactions with each other. You have newbies trying to break into a ready-made clique. You have shared experiences tying together one set of people offset by a natural desire to seek out new experiences and people. You have the blush of first love among a group of friends who are all at different stages of development. You have mean girls and good girls, ones who act one way in front of adults and another way around their peers. This interaction is the heart of the novel and is one of the things I loved about it.
However, it is not enough in the end to sway my opinions in any one direction. While I enjoyed reading The Girls in the Garden at the time, it is not a novel that has favorably weathered the time since I finished. Time exposes the weaknesses in the story, and distance has the benefit of removing any undue influence felt while caught up in the story. There are so many other excellent novels about the complications of female teenage relationships out this summer that this one pales in comparison even though it is a perfectly lovely story.