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Review: The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell

After a garden party one hazy summer evening, where her mother had one glass of one too many, a girl goes looking for her older sister. No one knows where she is, exactly, and something doesn’t feel right. The girl eventually finds her sister sprawled in a darkened corner of the garden, bleeding, unconscious, and half-naked. No one knows what happened. No one saw anything. Was it the googly-eyed grandfather, rumored to have roving hands? Was it the superhero dad, whose relationship with the girls of the garden may border on inappropriate? Was it the boy she was last seen with? Is it the same person who killed a girl, practically in the same place, twenty years prior? Will the garden ever give up the secrets it holds? And that, my friends, is the opening of The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell. From there, we’re brought back to when everything began. Pre-teens, Pip and Grace, and their mother, Clare, have just moved to a new home in Britain that backs up to a communal garden. Their father has been locked away in a mental health institution, following the fiery destruction of their house, which he believed to be infested by alien rats. Pip doesn’t quite understand the ramifications of her father’s actions, and while Grace wants nothing to do with their father, Pip writes him letters every day, detailing their new home, the activities in the garden, and especially about the various people, young and old, they encounter there. Their new community is made up of various families with children who have grown up in the garden, and who are hesitant to make way for “the new girls.” Soon enough, however, Pip and Grace fall in with the three strange, hippie girls from across the way, another girl who resents their intrusion on her “turf,” and a handsome, gentle boy. Meanwhile, Clare is making tentative friendships herself, with Leo and Adele, the parents of the three hippie girls. They’re everything Clare is not, and she can’t help but feel drawn to them – especially to Leo, with his warm, boisterous nature. As spring rolls into summer, the ensconced nature of the garden seems to heighten the relationships built within its confines, both negatively and positively, and the children become more and more secretive, with each other and with their parents. The adults feel the change in seasons, but cannot quite put their finger on what seems to feel “off.” Then, the summer party happens, Pip finds Grace unconscious, and everything changes – again. Upon finishing The Girls in the Garden, I felt weird. Unsettled. Disappointed. I can’t stop thinking about the book, perhaps for reasons the author did not intend, and so, here I am. I love a good mystery, and while I thought I had the main antagonist pegged, the actions of the other characters left just enough room for doubt, that I continued to guess “whodunit” through most of the book. I enjoy this aspect the most when reading a mystery or suspense novel: trying to ferret out who the “bad guy” is. In this regard, The Girls in the Garden met my expectations. I was disappointed, however, by the characters, and unsettled by the relationships that developed amongst the various groups of adults and pre-teens throughout the story. The story dragged in parts, and certain elements felt included only as a plot device to move the story in the direction the author wished it to head. The characters of The Girls in the Garden were overall unlikable, unbelievable, and therefore, unrelatable. Pip is the only exception, and she proves to be a wise, intuitive, caring girl. In fact, while this is a book marketed towards adults, it is Pip, a pre-teen, who does the bulk of the narration. The other narrators are her mother, Clare, and Adele, the liberal, laid-back mother of the triplets. Don’t let the junior standing of the main narrator prevent you from reading this book, dear reader. In fact, of the three narrators, with two of them being adults, Pip’s voice is the one I enjoyed the most! While Pip and Grace are the main characters, we’re introduced to a host of secondary characters in this book, all residents of the communal garden, and each with their own social standing. The other children are odd, and their behavior often distressed me. More than that, it seems the parents in this book don't care for their children, and in fact, are scared of their children. Scared of their disdain, of their temper tantrums, of their arrogance and ego. And so, they allow their children to run wild and to run over them in the process. Is this how families are run in the UK? I think not -- but this book would have you believing otherwise! The side story of sorts, involving Pip and Grace’s dad, felt unnecessary. Giving him a mental illness and have him burn down their house, just so they would all end up at this garden seemed a little… much. His absence could have been for a more common reason; not everything in a story has to be so shocking. In addition, there is a disabled character who is mentioned a number of times, and yet, he had no real role, other than to make his little brother look better for taking such good care of him. I don’t like to see those who are differently-abled being used as a plot device in my novels. This was a poor decision on the author’s part. Finally, we reach the ending, which was my biggest disappointment. I don’t expect every story to end in a heart-warming or satisfactory way, however, this ending in particular really stuck in my craw. It was rushed, anti-climactic, and none of the characters got what [I think] they deserved. While The Girls in the Garden was not a “home run” for me, it certainly succeeded in keeping me guessing, and of also involving me in the story, albeit from a skeptical and incredulous point-of-view. The writing was decent, though the book itself could have used a heavier hand with editing. I can’t recommend this as a “must have” book for your shelves, but if you’re a fan of mysteries and portrayals of dysfunctional families and communities, I’d suggest checking it out from the library. *Special thanks to Atria books for sending an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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