Summary (from Goodreads):
Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra's life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family.
Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace - the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century - Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.
Kate Morton writes a kind of book that I love. I would tentatively classify these novels as comforting historical fiction. What makes them different is that they are told from several points of view, at different times in history, they involve big families and are usually focused on women. The storylines end up superimposing and converging into a fireworks display, which usually makes me a happy reader. Another example of this kind of fiction are Maggie O'Farrell's novels (reviewed here and here).
The Forgotten Garden follows the stories of Cassandra (2005), Nell (1975) and Eliza (1900-14), as Nell tries to untangle her origins since she was abandoned in a wharf in Australia when she was a little child. However, this mistery isn't such for the reader, who knows many of the secrets from the start. This hindered a little bit my engagement with the story. Even if Kate Morton tried to muddle things toward the middle, it was pretty obvious what the real ending was going to be, especially since there were many pages till the end. It's akin to watching an episode from a procedural show and knowing that their first choice of suspect is wrong and the murderer is still looming, free. This clumsy development brought some more awful consequences with it, since it forced the author to include several plot devices which seemed forced, and turned into loose ends. I'm thinking of the Jack the Ripper/mad brother/seedy detective plotline, for example.
The fact that the author felt compelled to include a romantic interest also bothers me. I think that, although cute, the emotionally manipulative background for Cassandra and her salvation by a knight in shining armour is problematic. It wouldn't be so if the women included were different, but most of them were cookie-cutter romantic heroines. I know -from The House at Riverton and from Eliza and from Rose's mother- that Kate Morton is more than capable of writing interesting women, so I'm still scratching my head over her choice of a timorous protagonist to lead a 500-pages novel. On the other hand, there is a veiled criticism in her way of describing the roles and expectations of a Victorian lady - the struggle for propriety and decency, the need to ensnare and keep a husband, be it with lies or kids or whatever it took - the ease of doctors and other men to declare a woman mad or hysteric. So maybe she had a point in choosing a female main character who doesn't exactly kick ass, but gets to solve a century-old mystery. And the romance subplot really adds to the fairy tale feeling of the whole foundling mystery, along with the very definite personalities of the different characters - the crone, the prince, the princess, the maid, the fairy queen, the gentle forest-dweller animals (one of them is even named Robyn!)...
Once again, I loved Kate Morton's writing skills. She brought Victorian London and Cornwall to life. I liked the bits and pieces of Victoriana she included, like mourning jewelry. The atmosphere was taken right out of a Dickens novel, and the cameo of Frances Hodgson Burnett was perfect, as were the references to Enid Blyton's books. But my favorite part were, without a doubt, the fairy tales and the book-within-a-book subplot. I like the fact that she invented an array of characters (writer, illustrator, reviewers, and biographers) who blended so well into reality. So much that I had to google to be sure they weren't real. I think I would have enjoyed reading Eliza's Magical Tales for Girls and Boys. The little snippets were lovely, although not to subtle when it came to foreshadowing the general story arc. I would have loved to see the accompanying illustrations.