“The Girl in the Garden” by Melanie Wallace
240 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Published Jan. 31, 2017
It’s 1974 in a coastal New England town, where a mysterious young woman, her baby and an unfriendly man posing as her husband show up at a seaside motel, looking for 10 days of lodging.
By the time the 10 days have passed, the man is gone, leaving behind the woman, June, and her infant son, Luke. Over the course of time, June captures the hearts of Mabel, the widowed innkeeper; Oldman, a colorful but wise World War II veteran; Duncan, the town’s lawyer; and even Iris, an eccentric elderly woman who’s cut herself off from the world ever since the death of her husband. When Iris’ aloof daughter Claire returns home after about two decades, tensions run high.
These people barely know this mysterious out-of-towner, and yet they practically move heaven and earth to make her and her child feel welcome in their world. Each of them seem to have personal reasons for taking her in. They see something of themselves in her, perhaps – stranded, misunderstood, friendless. And as a result, we learn intimate details about all of them.
I really struggled to get into this book at first. In a mechanical sense, it is maddening. The author has a very poetic style of writing that borders on rambling. This book is rife with run-on sentences, which drove me crazy. And at the same time, she describes the town and the people in such a vivid and beautiful way that I could almost overlook the need for shorter sentences, fewer commas and more periods.
“The Girl in the Garden” is STRONGLY character driven – so much so, in fact, that there’s never really any mention of exactly where these people are in New England. It seemed like a very deliberate choice by the author that we never learn where the girl came from. After all, her whole aim for going to New England was to leave home and see the ocean. The farther I got into this book, the less it mattered to me whether the author ever revealed specific locations … because this book isn’t about places at all, but people.
There are myriad themes in this book dealing with human nature – grief, loneliness, regret, resentment, desire, etc. I came to appreciate that pretty quickly. At times, when the author delved into painstaking detail about a character’s past, I found myself wondering why I was supposed to care. But as it turns out, those details matter. They influence interactions and relationships between the characters in really interesting ways. I think the connections between Iris, June and Claire are especially fascinating, but I don’t want to give away too much.
“The Girl in the Garden” is a story of people, at their best and worst, that incorporates subtle mystical undertones. If you can wade through the wordiness, it’s definitely worth checking out.
I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
About the author
Melanie Wallace was born and raised in Manchester, New Hampshire, and now lives with her husband in Myloi, an agrarian village below the Ohi mountain range in Greece, and in Paris.
Wallace’s novel “The Housekeeper” was longlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize.
Bio and photo courtesy of the author’s Goodreads profile