The Memory Garden is about three friends who reunite after many years. Nan, Ruthie, and Mavis haven’t seen each other since their teens, when their other friend Eve died in a clearly traumatic but unknown way.
Nan has an adopted daughter, Bay, who is a teenager and was left on her doorstep as a baby. Nan is worried she might not be able to care for Bay, since there’s a sheriff poking around who clearly has some unsettled business. So on her 79th birthday, she calls her friends in for the weekend.
Bay is a pretty normal teenager except she’s been raised by the neighborhood “witch”. The kids all make fun of Nan, so Bay hates school and doesn’t have many friends. What Nan hasn’t told her is that Bay herself was born with some mysterious powers.
This book is really about rebuilding a friendship that was lost for many years. It’s one of those “unfolding the story of the past” kinds of books. It’s about guilt and forgiveness and aging and relationships. As Nan and her friends sit around the kitchen table, they reveal all the secrets of their lives. The mystery is what happened to Eve as a young woman, and why they let it destroy their friendship.
As I said, this book is well-written in a very descriptive style and the story held my interest. If you like Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic this is probably a book you’d like. Each chapter begins with a note about the magical properties of a particular herb, and the story centers around the house, the ghosts in the forest, and the mystical shoe garden.
Still, the book relied on a few too many tropes for my taste, and ultimately felt like things I’d seen before. This is a “female power” type of book. Women are mystical and magical and wise, even the old crotchety ones. Food has wondrous healing properties. Witches are wise, benevolent beings and the men around them are mostly fools.
It’s this last thing that bothered me once I finished the book. The female characters are interesting but the male characters are all either evil or stupid or weak (or some combination of the three). I don’t want to read a book with no strong female characters, so why would I want to read a book with no strong male characters? There’s one decent male character but he’s very passive; he’s also gay and hates his father. I couldn’t see any positive relationships between men and women in this book.
I started out thinking Practical Magic, and ended up thinking Steel Magnolias. Generally, a book that most people describe as “beautiful” or “lovely” is not my kind of book. Good, but not for me.
The other thing I struggled with were the huge gaps in the story’s chronology. You’re telling me nothing of interest happened to these women in 60 years, except the appearance of Bay on the doorstep? We learn little about the characters’ lives during those years, which felt contrived to me.
Now I say that, fully recognizing that for most of us, what happened in our teens is what sticks with us the rest of our lives. I remember my high school years like they happened yesterday, and it’s still the most dramatic, traumatic time of my life. But if I got together with friends after all this time, I’d still feel like I had a life between then and now. For me, the 60 year gap in story just didn’t work. Ask me when I’m 80 and maybe I’ll feel differently.
I always try to acknowledge when I might be in the minority, and I probably am with this book. Io9 just gave it a rave review, for example. So take this review as just my opinion (as they all are, of course). I enjoyed the read, it just fell a little flat for me.
Note: I received a review copy of this book from Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. This book published May 6, 2014.