Part puzzle, part fairy story, part mystery, and a tale of lost heritage that affects a persons psyche is this one. I promise, if you embark on the travels of Nell and Cassandra you will be entranced. In 1930 Brisbane, Australia a young beauty finds out that the family that raised her is not related to her biologically. Indeed they “found” her in 1913 and kept her even though she was obviously lost and belonged to another family. This knowledge is a huge blow to her idea of who she thought she was which affects her relationships with her sisters and later with her own daughter. In 1975, in her 60s Nell follows her heart on a soul search which ends in Cornwall, England. There she buys a cliff cottage on the estate where she is sure she was born. But the details of her heritage won't fall into place. She must return to Australia to take care of her business and make her plans to return to finish her quest.
Unfortunately circumstances intrude and Nell never gets the opportunity to complete her research into her heritage. She dies in 2005 knowing where she came from but still not knowing who her biological family was. Nell's much beloved granddaughter Cassandra inherits Nell's Cornwall cottage, Nell's notebook of family research, and her treasured book of fairytales. Thus begins her own quest to learn Nell's background.
The early chapters mention young Nell's unusual looks and bright red hair. Thus for the rest of the book it becomes a puzzle to try to attach her to every redhead that appears in the plot. If you have worked on jigsaw puzzles very much then this book will feel like putting a complex puzzle together. It will all come together in your mind's eye close to the end and suddenly the pieces fall together quickly. So, yes you do have to pay attention and remember key points in a pretty long book of 550 pages.
I love a book with a map and The Forgotten Garden has a map of the Blackhurst Estate as it was in 1913. You may want to put a sticky note on that page for reference as you read. My favorite chapters in this non-chronological story are about Eliza Makepeace who becomes known as “The Authoress.” Her tale begins in London in 1900 when she is a child living above a rag and junk shop with her twin brother and single mother. On page 112 Eliza's dying mother tells her, “You mustn't wait for someone to rescue you. A girl expecting rescue never learns to save herself.” That, dear reader sets you up to expect Eliza to be the heroine of the book and in my opinion she is. Eliza is a natural storyteller, transfixing whatever audience she has even as a child. As an adult she publishes her fairy stories in a book illustrated by a renowned artist. How can Eliza not be your heroine when upon receiving a copy of her book from her publisher she opens the book, lifts it to her face to smell the binding, the glue and the ink? Every book-sniffer reader will understand. A copy of Eliza's book in Nell's possession, which Cassandra takes with her to England, is a key factor in pulling the puzzle together.
The Forgotten Garden has a bit of that English mystery noir about it with dark and brooding relatives and plenty of damaged people trying to keep dark secrets. Of course there is also a bit of freshness as Cassandra finds not just family history, but friendship and a bit of romance. When Cassandra realizes that Eliza's fairytales are based on real family history another puzzle falls into place for her and for the reader. On page 125 Georgiana tells Eliza, “Always remember, with a strong enough will, even the weak can wield great power.” So it is that the weak and the dead wield great power in this book.