I bought The Forgotten Garden a couple of years ago, but have only lately managed to actually read it. Full disclosure: I didn’t complete it. I got through most of it, deemed the pages intermediate to the end too tedious a read, and skipped right to the finish. I liked it well enough, although the Arthur Rackham fairies dancing over the book’s lining had led me to believe that it was going to contain some supernatural elements, and I was disappointed when it did not.
Nevertheless, when a friend recommended Kate Morton’s first book The House at Riverton to me, I decided to read it. As you may or may not know, gentlefriends, one of my most ambitious secondary projects here in Namibia is to spend as much time as possible alone in my room; reading helps to while away the long hours.
I just finished it today, and I have to declare that I found it superior to The Forgotten Garden, although to be perfectly frank neither of the books are great masterpieces of literature. The House at Riverton at least has a more engaging plot, and cleverly manages one last surprise at the very end, whereas the secrets of The Forgotten Garden can be guessed way in advance of their unveiling in the narrative. The writing in both is straightforward, prosy; the pacing is off, and sometimes Morton’s characters can be maddeningly dim.
BUT, I still greatly enjoyed both books, and here’s why:
A theme that dominates both books, and one I think Morton handles particularly well, is that of female friendships. The plots of both books revolve around bonds between women, who are related both by blood and by mutual sympathy. Here is perhaps my favorite part about it: there is no backstabbing. There is no petty jealousy, no calculated perfidy or heartless betrayal. No one steals her friend’s man. The women are selflessly devoted to each other (usually one moreso than the other). It is these deep friendships that offer the women the greatest comfort and pleasure in their lives. Oh, there are men of course, and these have their place, but they can never be fully trusted. Men are childish and capricious…even cruel. And despite their best efforts, they can never fully understand their daughters, wives or lovers. Morton’s women recognize the intrinsic value of their female friends, and are determined to protect them. Again and again, Morton forces her characters to make the shattering choice between romantic and fraternal (sororal?) love; inevitably they choose the latter, and what’s more: they never regret their choice. Furthermore, if something happens to rupture the ties between women, the consequences are devastating. A woman friendless and alone will surely wither and die, or become reclusive and bitter.
It is refreshing and touching to see the women’s friendships portrayed this way, particularly since in so many stories “friends” are merely catty connivers waiting to pounce on somebody else’s boyfriend, or else they are simply props used to stage a conversation about how dashing the male lead is. There’s nothing really romantic in Morton’s female friendships. They’re not secret lesbians—they just care for and appreciate each other. They don’t reject men, but neither do they depend upon them completely for emotional fulfillment.
At their best, female friendships can be wonderfully supportive, stimulating…even life-sustaining. Kate Morton’s books celebrate this, and that reason alone makes them worth reading.