Monday, August 31, 2009

Allusions to The Secret Garden: After You and The Forgotten Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was a childhood favorite - probably yours, too. It ranked up there with Little Women, which could be found for 59 cents at the grocery store, and with the Nancy Drew mysteries, which cost approximately $1.25 a volume at a bookstore - as extravagant as our book-buying got. The Secret Garden was too expensive, my mother said, and since it was at the library, I had to borrow it. Now I, of course, have my own copy, with Tasha Tudor’s beautiful illustrations.

Two recent novels, Julie Buxbaum’s After You and Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden, have many allusions to The Secret Garden, which will spark interest or make them a joy to many women. The first is a a well-written women’s issue novel, reminiscent of the books of Elizabeth Berg and Anna Quindlen; the second is a mystery with fairy-tale overtones about three generations of women, a wild garden, and identity.

Buxbaum’s After You is touching and dramatic, a page-turner mom-lit kind of novel to read in your pajamas on the weekend. The quirky, caring voice of Ellie, the narrator, is instantly likable and charming. She has flown to London in the wake of disaster to take care of her goddaughter: Ellie's best friend Lucy was murdered in Notting Hill by a meth addict while she was walking her daughter to school. Eight-year-old Sophie witnessed the violence, is traumatized, and won’t talk. Ellie is determined to fix this. Slowly she coaxes Sophie to talk, charming her by reading aloud The Secret Garden.

“By the way, just so you’ll know, you aren’t allowed to read it without me. Once you start a book together, you have to finish it together. So we have Mary Lennox, who is, what? About nine, I think. A little older than you. And she’s ugly. Not like you at all. But isn’t it funny how the books just spells that out? She’s an ugly, miserable pain in the ass...” Sophie giggles. You said ass.

Ellie says she loves The Secret Garden because when her grandmother died,

“I was a little freaked out, understandably. So that night, my mom took out The Secret Garden and started reading to me. And you know what happened? I forgot everything else and all I could think about was Mary Lennox...”

Ellie’s marriage has been rocky since she lost a baby in her eighth month of pregnancy. Her husband thinks she is staying in London to get away from him. Living in the house on Notting Hill with Lucy's reserved workaholic husband, Greg, whom Ellie scarcely knows, and Sophie, whom he neglects, is not easy. Her maternal feelings are in full swing. Then she learns some of Lucy's secrets which change her idealized portrait of her beloved friend.

Ellie's divorced parents, meanwhile, are getting back together (for the zillionth time), and she reconsiders her own relationships and marriage. This is a fast-moving, entertaining novel, with characters we're rooting for.

I read Morton's more ambitious novel, The Forgotten Garden, a while ago: it is a rambling, sometimes fascinating pastiche of mystery and fairy tale, a kind of pop-fiction version of A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book. (There really are some resemblances, but I won't get into that.) In 1913 a child who doesn't know her name shows up on a dock in Australia: she has traveled alone from England. She has a fairy tale book in a suitcase, but no other personal belongings. When she grows up and learns she is adopted, she investigates her identity. Interspersed are tales of another orphan, an abused girl, who grows up to be a fairy-tale authoress and lives in a cottage in a secret garden. Nell's granddaughter mysteriously inherits the cottage and finds out more secrets.

Parts of this are quite good, though it sags a bit in the middle.

Anyway, two different ways of paying tribute to Frances Hodgson Burnett.

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