On her 21st birthday, Nell learns that she isn’t who she thinks she is. Her well-intentioned father reveals that he found her abandoned on the dock when she was 4, apparently dropped off there by one of the ships that had made the journey from England to Australia. Thus begins the unraveling of the mystery of Nell’s origins, a process that spans over 100 years.
Nell doesn’t handle this information well at all. Despite being a cherished daughter of a close, loving family, she now feels like an interloper, like she doesn’t belong. She distances herself from her family and transitions from a vibrant, engaging young woman into a bitter loner – one of several somewhat mystifying overreactions by the book’s characters to adverse situations.
Nell goes on to get married and has a daughter with whom she is eventually estranged. In the mid-’70s, this daughter dumps her daughter, Cassandra, on Nell’s doorstep and Nell ends up raising her.
Flash forward to 2005. Nell dies and leaves Cassandra a cottage in England. Cassandra is surprised to learn of the cottage and further surprised to hear about Nell’s mysterious origins. She feels compelled to travel to England to check out her inheritance and also take a shot at solving the mystery Nell was unable to solve – the identity of her biological parents and the reason someone left her alone on an Australia-bound boat.
As Cassandra discovers clues, the reader is also treated to flashbacks from 1975, when Nell was undergoing a similar process. There are also many flashbacks to the early 1900s during which we learn about the inhabitants of the cottage and the grand estate the cottage belongs to. It’s here that we learn Nell’s sad origin story. It’s a tale of envy, weakness and manipulation, but also one of great love.
Kate Morton is a master at weaving together these multi-generational mysteries (also see The Secret Keeper, which I blogged about here). It’s impressive how she manages to develop cohesive story lines across three very different time periods, planting clues in 1913 for a character in 2005 to unearth. She’s also terrific at creating mood and atmosphere. In this case, the mood was slightly melancholy with a dash of hope and also creepiness.
On the downside, some of the storyline from the early 1900s was melodramatic, bordering on absurd. Related to this, many of the characters were overly ruled by their emotions to the point that they got stuck in an endless loop of insecurity and self pity. Aggravating.
While I didn’t like it as much as The Secret Keeper, The Forgotten Garden is an engrossing story of love, loss and the search for identity. Kate Morton explores the complicated nature of family relationships in the form of a unique mystery that kept me entertained and interested. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you might want to check out The Forgotten Garden.