Jul 13, 2009

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

In 1913, a ship arrives in Australia from London with a four-year-old girl travelling alone on board. She carries nothing but a small suitcase with a book of fairy tales inside, and she says she cannot remember her name. All she remembers is that a lady she calls The Authoress told her she would come back for her. In Brisbane, 2005, Cassandra inherits an old cottage in Cornwall from her recently deceased grandmother, a cottage of whose existence she had no idea. Her grandmother, Nell, was once the little girl on that ship. Cassandra follows her footsteps and travels to England to help solve the mystery of her past.

And so begins a story that is full of things I love: an old house in Cornwall, Blackhurst Manor, full of family secrets going back to Victorian and Edwardian times; a family mystery and a literary mystery; an appearance by Frances Hodgson Burnett; old tales of Cornish smugglers and cursed ships; and there's even the inclusion of some of Eliza Makepeace’s (the mysterious Authoress) fairy tales in the book. In addition to all this, the book itself is absolutely beautiful: look at this picture Chelle took of the inside cover.

Sounds awesome, right? Sigh, I thought so too. I wanted to love The Forgotten Garden. In fact, I was completely convinced that I would. But I hadn’t been this let down by a book in a long, long while. My main problem was Kate Morton’s writing style, which I passionately disliked. It’s the kind of writing that has me rolling my eyes and making sarcastic remarks to my cats as I read. Not everyone will feel as I do, of course, and because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, I’ll do my best to spare you the sarcasm. But here are some excerpts so you can see what the writing is like for yourselves:
The move back to Australia hadn’t helped, but that was retrospect talking. Nell knew better than to allow exhibits of hindsight in the court of self-blame.
(Um...)
He was a scribble of a man. Frail and fine and stooped from a knot in the centre of his knobbled back. Beige slacks with grease spots clung to the marble of his knees, twig-like ankles rose stoically from oversized shoes, and tufts of white floss sprouted from various fertile spots on an otherwise smooth scalp. He looked like a character from a children’s story. A fairy story.
(Stoically? Fertile?!)
A brass bell tinkled in the doorjamb and the old man turned to look at her. Thick spectacle lenses caught the light, shone like two round mirrors, and impossibly large ears balanced on the sides of his head, white hair colonizing them from within.
(Colonizing?! Okay, okay—I promised.)
She could hear her heart, a sparrow no longer but a raven with large, powerful wings, beating within her chest.
This kind of writing really doesn’t work for me. Another problem was that this book reminded me a lot of Possession—connected storylines set in the present and in the past, a mystery surrounding a writer of fairy tales, the fairy tales themselves included in the book, some letters and journal entries and academic bits…I’m not saying The Forgotten Garden is a rip-off, as it’s definitely different enough to be its own thing. But it’s also similar enough that I was frequently reminded of Possession, of how much this pales in comparison, and of how I’d rather be re-reading it instead.

This is a story with many characters living in different time periods, and it’s told in the third person. And then, like I said, there are letters, journals, bits of books, etc. Which leads me to another problem: all these voices sounded exactly alike. The writing style was always the same, no matter if we were reading a letter, an excerpt from an academic text, a fairy tale, or a piece of the story proper. So I couldn’t bring myself to fully believe those voices from the past. I even—gasp!—disliked the fairy tales. They felt like mere allegories, lifeless and hollow.

On top of everything, I had a lot of trouble connecting with the characters. Most of the time they just irritated me. There’s a romance involving Cassandra, the modern day character, and scenes that are meant to be touching had me rolling my eyes. And as for her grandmother, Nell—this probably sounds horribly unsympathetic of me, but I just couldn’t understand why being told she was adopted ruined her life. Don’t worry, this is not a spoiler; it happens in the first ten pages of the book or so. She is 21 when her father tells her the truth, and from then on she completely withdraws from the family who raised and loved her for seventeen years, all because they’re not her “real” family. I know that adopted kids sometimes have trouble adjusting to the truth, especially if it was hidden from them for so long. But to be so bitter about it for the rest of her life (and she lived a long life) just seemed so melodramatic to me.

The whole book was a huge dramafest, and I’ll be the first to admit that dramafests can be kind of awesome—especially if old Victorian skeletons in the closet are involved. And sometimes it was awesome. But most of the time it was just too much. Also, the solution to mystery is obvious to readers because we are watching events unfold in the present and in the past. So the false clues Cassandra follows are, to us, obviously false, except she can’t possibly know. And okay, it’s not really her fault—but, to me at least, watching characters take forever to figure out what the reader knows all along is just annoying.

Having said that, I did read all 659 pages of it, and it didn’t even take me long. Considering how much I disliked the writing, that’s saying a lot. To be honest, towards the end I must have been getting used to it, because it didn’t bother me as much anymore. But the little voice in my head saying I should be re-reading Possession instead just wouldn’t shut up.

Many people loved this book, and apart from the writing I can see its appeal. If you like stories about old houses and family secrets a la The Thirteenth Tale, you might want to give this a try. And like I said, not everyone will have the problems I did with the writing. Make sure you click the links below to read some different opinions:

Violet Crush
Lesley’s Book Nook
Julie’s Jewels
Mysteries in Paradise

(Did I miss yours?)

67 comments:

  1. I had put this on my TBR list when I first heard of it last summer, but after your review I'm thinking it isn't the book for me. (To be honest, I'm taking any excuses to knock books off my TBR list at this point!)

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  2. What a shame you didn't like it. I got this for Christmas but haven't read it yet. I loved The House of Riverton, but found it did go on a bit. I shall have to read Possession now too, just to see the comparisons.

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  3. I found The House at Riverton to have the same problem, sloppy writing - but I enjoyed it anyway. In a guilty pleasure kind of way. I'm hoping I can feel the same about The Forgotten Garden. Circumstances aren't as conducive now, as I am no longer on vacation in London nibbling on a chocolate pastry at Costa. :)

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  4. oh, this was fun to read (your review) - did your cats appreciate the sarcasm?

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  5. You are hysterical....
    "It’s the kind of writing that has me rolling my eyes and making sarcastic remarks to my cats as I read."

    From your sampling, I agree. I would be right there with you rolling my eyes as well.

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  6. Oh my. Having just written my review of Nation with snippets of his wonderful writing, I fear those quotes you posted sound even more dreadful than they might otherwise have. Yikes. It sounds like she's just trying waaaaay too hard.

    Now your review, on the other hand...it was just plain fun! Why don't you read books you don't enjoy more often, so we can delight in your sarcasm? Of course, you do know I am sorry that you didn't have more fun with this book...from the description at the beginning of your review, I can see why you had your hopes up. It definitely sounds as if it had the potential to be fabulous. Sorry it wasn't.

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  7. "It’s the kind of writing that has me rolling my eyes and making sarcastic remarks to my cats as I read." Hee, this makes me giggle.

    At the beginning of your review I though "this is my kind of book, Nymeth finds such fabulous books, must add this to my wish-list also" and then read on and said "meh".
    I'm sorry you were so let down; I hate when it happens.

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  8. can you hear me groan? *groan*
    I have this book in my tbr pile... and while I absolutely LOVE the 13th tale I was very disappointed with the House at Riverton! so I have a 50/50 shot huh? I can say the snippets aren't making me push that book up the tbr pile any! *sigh*

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  9. I'm still mixed on whether to read this one or not. I've seen several reviews which are similar toy yours where people have been disappointed.

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  10. I got all excited when I was reading your description and then I was bummed when I read it didn't live up to your expectations.

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  11. Oh I'm sorry to hear you didn't like it. I read it earlier in the year and enjoyed it. I have noticed that most reviews are five stars and then they go to 1-2 stars. There's no middle ground - so I guess it's either you love it or hate it. Bleh - great honest review. :D

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  12. Not even the fairy tales?? How sad! I thought the author sounded familiar. It is because I've got The House at Riverton laying around waiting to be read. Sure hope it doesn't make me roll my eyes :o)
    Loved the review and glad you included quotes so we could read it for ourselves. Looked like she overdid it with the adjectives and simile.

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  13. Oh dear, this sounds dire! I have The House at Riverton sitting around somewhere, but I certainly shan't rely on it for taking away (when I might be struck without an alternative). I felt very much this way about The Thirteenth Tale, too, which I know a lot of people loved.

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  14. Hmm, I think I would have been rolling my eyes at those too! I have heard lots of mixed reviews for this one. I'm still interested in it though and I guess one day I'll check it out and see. Actually I have her other book The House at Riverton on my shelf so maybe I'll check it out first.

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  15. Have you read The House at Riverton? I have just finished it and thought it was only OK. It went on a bit too long, just like this one seems to. A shame as I was hoping for good things from this too.

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  16. Friends have said House at Riverton is like a low rent Atonement, not surprised Forgotten Garden has the same problem. I read FG for book group and decided that if it was 250 pages instead of 500 it would be ok summer beach reading.

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  17. Having just finished Possession, I'm not going to go seeking out a poor version of it! I did that with the Lady Julia Grey books and unfortunately And Only to Deceive suffered for it. Besides that, the writing is kind of ridiculous and doesn't help me visualize what's going on at all. Sounds like a miss.

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  18. Sorry to hear that you didn't like it. I have never read this author but after reading your exerts I don't know. You did write a great review!

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  19. I really liked The House at Riverton, so I'm sorry to hear that this one didn't pass muster. Love the cover and the description, though.

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  20. Sorry to hear this book is a let down, Nymeth! I was hoping this would be good after seeing the cover... guess I need to wait a while before getting this book.

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  21. sounds disappointing. sorry it didn't work out.

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  22. I've seen opinions going both ways on this one and as it's on my shelf I guess I'll have to read it and decide for myself. My copy didn't seem so big but maybe it is. Either way I won't be rushing to read it but I'd still like to give it a go.

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  23. Based on the quotes you included and your review, I don't think this is a book for me. Thanks for the honest assessment.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  24. God, I love this review! I can't remember the last time you disliked a book. Can you believe I just returned this to the library unread? I had it for weeks but couldn't get passed the first chapter. I can't believe you read the whole book though you didn't like it.

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  25. I'm really sorry that you didn't enjoy this one!! I've been pretty lucky this year and have liked everything that I've read. You're next choice be better I'm sure of it!! :)

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  26. I'm not sure if I'll ever read this, but the cover sure is beautiful!

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  27. Oh no :( I read your first couple of paragraphs, saw that cover and clicked on the link to Chelle's site and added it to my wishlist...and then I kept reading your review and got to the passages...

    *nods head*

    I have to admit to a bit of snickering while reading those passages. I don't think I could get through this one if I tried. What a shame...it sounds like it could have been so good!!

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  28. And LOL...I just saw Debi's comment and I was laughing hysterically...I agree...you should write about books you didn't like more often :p

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  29. Aw, that's too bad. It DOES sound like it would be a great book. Kind of like a Barbara Michaels novel. But the samples of the writing you gave made me lawl. Uhg--truly awful.

    I think I'll skip this one--thanks for the heads up. :)

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  30. really did not enjoy this book and felt very disappointed in it.

    glad you felt the same :P

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  31. haha...sorry but its funny that you didn't like the exact same thing I loved in this book. The writing :) In fact, I even quoted the same passage (scribble of a man). I think it works well with the context.

    I didnt like Nell either, but I loved Eliza and her fairy tales.

    Sorry you didn't enjoy as much, I thought you would. I haven't read Possession so I'm glad I didn't have anything to compare it with.

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  32. This kind of writing isn't for me either, I find I re-read sentences too often for my liking... it's like it's trying too hard. Thanks for the honest review anyway!

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  33. You're right, with the summary, I was getting excited for this book. But then it sounded so disappointing! I did love Possession so maybe I'll go reread that instead ;)

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  34. I had issues with the House of Riverton after the fact. When I was reading it I loved it but I think it was because I just hated the two previous books I had read. Morton was coherent by comparison. I think she just might not be the author for me. I especially don't like being so ahead of the character. Unless it's well done it just makes the characters seem dumb.

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  35. This is the second mediocre review I've read for this novel - I'm pretty disappointed. I was hoping to love this one.

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  36. I'm so sorry to hear you didn't like this one -- I had high hopes for it even though I haven't read The House at Riverton yet. I love the comment about making sarcastic remarks to your cats! From the sounds of your quotes, I'm not sure I'd like this one either.

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  37. When I read the first part of this review I thought, 'OMG I have to have this book!'. Now I'm not so sure, writing like that annoys me too and throws me right out the story. Maybe one to get from the library and *maybe* I should read Possession...

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  38. Okay, that first quote already turned me off ("allow exhibits of hindsight in the court of self-blame"? Seriously?) but it was the Possession-sound-alike that really did me in. Considering I nye on WORSHIP Possession (Okay, not that bad, but you know what I mean), I would likely want ot scream the whole time.

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  39. I've been curious about this one. I may still give it a try (I loved thirteen tale!).

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  40. I couldn't even make it past page 50 of her other book. The writing was so exaggerated that my mind wandered constantly - if a thesaurus were a drug, the author most assuredly was mainlining it.

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  41. Nope. I don't think I would enjoy this book at all. The writing sounds terrifically bad and the fact that the characters were hard to connect with cements it for me. I am really sorry that you didn't enjoy the book. I hope your next read is better.

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  42. I received an unsolicited copy for review and haven't had the motivation to read it yet. I've read so many mixed reviews of this one. I sometimes do like writing like that--it depends on the book, my mood, and how it's done. I'll give it a try. Hopefully I will like it better than you did. :-)

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  43. Does anyone have a mind of their own nowadays? It's like: Oh, I have read reviews and no one liked the book, so I'm going to be fashionable and not read the book, because I won't like it either, and if I like it, it will make me a weirdo!

    My son bought me this book for my birthday. I had never heard of it. I am on my second reading of it, and yes, I am one of the weirdos, who doesn't mind admitting to:

    LOVING IT!!!!

    I am going to get the House at Riverton.

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  44. Good, thorough review, Nymeth. I have not read many reviews disliking this book, but when I read the excerpts I could see how the writing could get annoying. It sounds more like she did not have a very good editor. I tend to use too many adjectives in my writing, too, and a good editor could have helped her trim some of the more elaborate and far-reaching descriptions out in a way that the reader still got the picture.

    I am like Anonymous up there and I don't base any book reading decisions off of one or two reviews nor do I expect anyone to do that with me and my reviews. However, if someone said they did not think they'd like it based off the excerpts or based off of the fact your reading tastes are twins, then that makes sense to me.

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  45. So sorry to hear that this was a let down. With that awesome cover and wonderful story elements it seems like a no-brainer that it would be good. Just goes to show that you need the pieces of a good story AND the ability to tell it to have a successful book.

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  46. sorry to hear you didnt enjoy this one too much. I was wondering about this book since I saw it a few weeks back.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  47. Awesome review!
    The excerpts you posted convince me this isn't the book for me, either. The writing is a little over the top, and I'd probably be making sarcastic comments while reading it too!

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  48. I want to apologize to everyone for not having responded to comments here. I had a crazy busy week, and after spending most of today trying to catch up with several things, I think the wisest decision is to just start from scratch next week. Your comments were very much appreciated, though!

    Also, I want to tell the anonymous commenter that there is really no need to get so worked up. As you'll no doubt notice if you read my post and the comments carefully, absolutely nobody said that if you liked this book you were a "weirdo". In fact, I made sure to point out that not everyone would feel as I did, and to link to several positive reviews. I understand it can be upsetting to see people say they won't read a book you happen to love, but we all decide we won't read certain books. There's just too much stuff out there, and we have to draw the line somewhere. Like Rebecca pointed out, to decide a book doesn't interest you based on a few excerpts and someone's opinion is really not that unreasonable. Putting it another way, if you recommended this book to a friend and based on that they went out and got it, would they have "no mind of their own"? Something to think about. I'm glad you loved it and I wish I had too, but hey, different opinions make the world more interesting.

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  49. Great review, and great reply comment, Nymeth. This book has a wonderful story line - I absolutely loved your summary. From the excerpts you posted, I'm probably not the right reader for the writing style, but the summary is so intriguing. I must admit, I have a copy of Possession, but haven't read it yet - I'm going to have to dig it out of the TBR.

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  50. I read The House at Riverton by her and wasn't massively impressed and don't think I am interested in reading any more of her work. I liked her premise, but something was wrong in the execution and it sounds like the same is true of this one too sadly.

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  51. Belle, thank you! And yes, the storyline is a great one...I was really sad to be so let down.

    Rhinoa: Yes, exactly...the execution completely ruined it for me. I don't think I'll be reading her again either.

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  52. Goodness, I am *way* behind in my blog reading/commenting! Though, to be honest, I skimmed your thoughts because, even though I bought the book, I've yet to read it. :( As soon as I do I'm heading right back here to read your review more closely.

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  53. Try listening to this book - I didn't know if I was in Australia, US or UK - and the gal reading did nothing to change her voice. I had to finish it just to find out how it all turned out but I agree with your review, it was like the author(ess?) tried TOO hard. And really, were people that cruel ever? Between the wicked aunt and the crone in London, man, those were some tough times.

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  54. OK, I am floating around in your past here, but thought I would add my two measly cents. First, I think I'm probably by comparison a simple reader. I doubt if those quotes (which, when you isolate them, do sound absurd!) would have caused me to blink an eye had I read them in the book. I'm thinking that perhaps on audio, it would seem less ridiculous with a good narrator. The ingredients in this book are all good, and are the same ones she used in Riverton...old stately manor, family secrets, drama. I'll probably be posting my review late November or early December. Stay tuned!

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  55. I am from greece and here, the title is "Like a fairytale". I loved it so much, especially Eliza and Rose.
    For my style, the atmosphere reminded me of 'Wuthering heights', possibly because of the Maountrachet family.

    Anyway, LOVE IT!!!!


    Elena

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  56. I just started this book over the weekend, only on chapter 5. So far, it has been decent. We'll see how it goes!

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  57. Couldn't disagree more.Intelligent, beautiful,and magically woven together. Loved this book from beginning to end!

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  58. Well, to each their own, of course :) I'm glad you all enjoyed it. I wish I had too, and I don't often hate books, but I couldn't help it in this case.

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  59. I am also from Greece and i adore the book. But i didn't understood something. Eliza was in love with Nathaniel????????????? Somebody to answer please!!!!!!!

    Lily

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  60. I agree completely with your review, Nymeth. The only exception I have is that I found myself making my sarcastic remarks to my two dogs! I, too wanted to love this book, but the exaggerated writing and choices of words made me cringe at times. I also wished Kate Morton had allowed us to figure out some of the mystery for ourselves. Next...

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  61. I like the story so far, but the comma splice errors and fragments are ruining it for me! Sorry, I'm an English teacher and I have to correct this all the time in my college student's papers. I don't want to read it for pleasure. Thanks for your review Nymeth! I agree with you.

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  62. Absolutely agree with the review. The writing was intolerable. There was unnecessary sub-plots that simply distracted from the interesting bits of the book. The writing style requires some serious editing.

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  63. I am on page 113 of this book and can't continue--for all the reasons you describe. Pedestrian, boring writing, in a very flat, unchanging voice. I finally googled for a synopsis of the plot and now I know all I need to and can return this to the library.

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  64. I just finished reading "Forgotten Garden." It didn't touch me until about page 300! After that, I couldn't put it down.

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  65. Frig i hated this book
    well it was decent in the beginning and i got really excited and anxious at some parts but Rose is such a jerk
    does no one notice that?
    she asks Eliza to have her baby... which is a ridiculous demand, yet everyone seems to comply. And Eliza decides to do it cuz she wants Rose to need her forever... and yet after she's given birth to the baby, she's locked in the garden place!!!
    LIKE WHAT
    THEY STOLE HER BABY AND NEVER TALKED TO HER AGAIN
    WHAT IS THIS
    JERKS
    yeah that's why i hate this book

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  66. I just finished reading this book and while searching for a quote I now cannot find in the book, came across your blog. When my son was 18 he went cross-country and visited my mother who told him the father he had known all his life was not his biological father. An already rather sullen boy who had had a very sad childhood, he became completely depressed. His father and I had been planning to tell him when he returned from his trip. We were divorced and was the only time he would agree to come to do this. My son feels like his life was a lie. Melodramatic? I suppose. But for some people it is believable to react this way. My mother was adopted and when her parents died she found her biological family. She was never at odds with it or felt less than connected to her adoptive parents. Who can say why some react so. But it can happen. I just wanted to say that.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.