Author: Lisa Jewell
Genres [according to Goodreads]:
Adult > Adult Fiction
Thriller > Mystery Thriller
Womens Fiction > Chick Lit
Published/Publisher: June 7th 2016/Atria Books
Format Read In: Paperback
Summary from Goodreads:
Imagine that you live on a picturesque communal garden square, an oasis in urban London where your children run free, in and out of other people’s houses. You’ve known your neighbors for years and you trust them. Implicitly. You think your children are safe. But are they really?
On a midsummer night, as a festive neighborhood party is taking place, preteen Pip discovers her thirteen-year-old sister Grace lying unconscious and bloody in a hidden corner of a lush rose garden. What really happened to her? And who is responsible?
Dark secrets, a devastating mystery, and the games both children and adults play all swirl together in this gripping novel, packed with utterly believable characters and page-turning suspense.
My Review [POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD*]:
“Her children were safe out there [the park]…As far as she was concerned, the park was an extension of her home…But it was a fragile alchemy…and the arrival of the two new girls had disordered things…Was it possible, she thought, that something sinister was going on?” – Adele Howes; The Girls in the Garden/The Girls, L. Jewell
*I say “possible spoilers” because while no key hint is specified, you could read between the lines*
I finished this book a couple of days ago in one sitting, which is something I haven’t done in awhile! Apparently I love the thrill of being able to complete a book you’ve been wanting to read for awhile in one day–but who doesn’t really?
I’m not one for picking up contemporary books, mostly because few things are ever straightforward–which can be intriguing to some but not me–and the characters are hard to grasp–harder to understand–but I thought I’d give it a try to broaden my genre tastes and give contemporary a chance. In this case, I’m rather glad I did.
The plot is just as it is written: 12-year-old Pip Wild goes looking for her 13-year-old sister Grace Wild after a festival is held in the garden and finds her half naked, bloodied and unconscious, setting into motion the search for what had led to this happening. I love me a good mystery, with all the suspense heaped on.
I was surprised to find that this mystery only appears at the beginning of the book, as if it were a prologue, and then for half of the book, Jewell starts us at the very beginning, when Grace and Pip first move into their new house–who’s backyard faces the garden–and continues on until the day of the festival, before jumping again to after Grace was taken to the hospital, probably purposely keeping the time slot when Grace was attacked completely blank even in the novel, until the very end. It was an interesting story structure that worked well to drum up the drama and have us wondering why Grace was found the way she was and who could have been motivated to attack her in such a way. Did they find drugs in her system because someone had put it in there to make it easier to attack her or because she herself was doing drugs, something that Pip finds out before the festival? Did Leo Howes, the charismatic father of three daughters in their neighbourhood with an uncomfortable relationship with one of the young girls and who kissed a 13-year-old girl when he was 18, commit the crime or was it his perverse father, who’s wandering hands were the talk of the neighbourhood? Or was it someone else, someone who had taken advantage of the comfort, it seems, that all the parents had with the garden keeping their children safe?
Despite being an adult book, the story is mostly narrated by Pip Wild, the young girl who’s intellect and need to follow her gut instincts and intuition was refreshing and interesting. I really did like her spunk and her dis-interest in being apart of any drama the other kids in the neighbourhood partook in! She even tries to conduct her own investigation after Grace is taken to the hospital with the tenacity you don’t usually see in someone at her age. I’d almost find her personality too adult-like if it wasn’t for her childish adoration of her father and her wish for him to return home so that they can all be a family again.
Some of the other characters aren’t quite as likeable but that might be because the usual characters are read about are either good, bad, or very clearly walking the line.
First there is Grace Wild, our victim, who seems rather stand-offish for most of the book, but her love and care for her sister Pip manages to shine through at times. She, at first, doesn’t care much for interacting with any of the neighbourhood kids and hates her new house. Overtime she finds a place in the group of kids while Pip pulls back, suddenly uncomfortable with the atmosphere surrounding them, creating a distance between the two girls that was sad to watch, though shortly before the festival, Grace tries to patch up her relationship with Pip a bit. Grace is very obviously impatient to grow up, wearing make-up and tighter, shorter outfits, developing a crush on Leo and then a crush and relationship with Dylan, another neighbourhood kid. She would be what, sadly, many folks picture a much-younger-than-expected victim of a sexual assault would be like: flirty, forward, unashamed and “asking for it”–much like the victim of a possible murder that had happened in that very same garden a few years back, a victim who’d also been heavily drugged and thought to have over-dosed.
Clare Wild is Grace and Pip’s mother, a woman married to a schizophrenic documentary-making man who’d had a vicious episode where he burned down their house while she and their daughters were out, without having checked to see if anyone was in the house at the time, which led him to be institutionalized and the ladies having to move to the garden. Clare, in the aftermath, is feeling rather shaky, facing the thought of raising her daughters while her cash flow is slowly depleting due to her relying on her husband’s money, cut off from people except her mother, and fearing that she had married a terribly unstable man. When Adele and Leo Howes, the parents of daughters who befriend Grace and Pip, appear to be helping to raise the girls, Clare is at first uncomfortable with the idea but slowly warms to it, especially around Leo, who’s strength and kindness has her feeling an attraction that incidentally plays apart in what happens to Grace afterwards. Clare was one of those characters that was hard to understand, and a little later hard to like, but after putting down the novel, I felt like I could at least sympathize with her situation–being completely reliant on her husband, only to have everything she loves, her whole house burnt down, starting literally from scratch with two children to raise all on her own for the first time. It’s rather scary, but I feel like she did somewhat the best that she could do and at least she’s pretty self-aware when it comes to her mistakes.
Adele and Leo, as mentioned before, are the parents of Willow, Catkin and Fern, and all five of them live an alternative life. The girls are home-schooled by their mother, they eat organic only, and the girls learn to play instruments in their spare time when they aren’t spending their time with the children in the garden. Adele is a sweet and understanding character, though I found her a bit too flighty in her parenting and a bit too keen on letting her daughters go loose in the world without interfering in a way I felt a parent should. Which I can’t help but also feel played a vital role in what happens to Grace. But I felt like she grew the most as a character, as she began to become more aware of her surroundings and more aware about who she is living with exactly, dumping this naivety she appeared to be carrying for most of the book. Leo is also rather sweet, getting along with the children easily and earning their trust and respect without a hitch. All, except for Pip who is at first just as entranced with him until she sees him holding hands with Tyler, a young girl in their neighbourhood, with her head on his shoulder on Willow’s bed. Pretty much the same moment that any reader would also reel back from. From then on, I was pretty suspicious of Leo, especially when more sketchy parts of his past as a teenager and then as a young adult surfaced, and his charm felt fake and convoluted the whole time. He was also too weirdly into everyone’s business. Even by the end of the book, he still rubs me the wrong way.
Willow, Catkin and Fern Howes themselves almost had interchangeable personalities if not for the major way they were different–Willow is a blabbermouth, Fern is very quiet and needs physical stimuli in the form of a ribbon she rubs across her upper lip, and Catkin is rather rebellious in her own way. Then there is Dylan, a gentle kid and the only boy among the group, as well as the object of some of the girls’ crushes, especially that of Grace and Tyler. I rather liked the way he carried himself and despite a few mistakes, and my eyebrow-raise at the thought of 13-year-olds dating, I ended up appreciating his relationship with Grace. Then there’s Tyler Rednough, a territorial girl and the first of the neighbourhood kids to actually talk to Pip and Grace. She is Dylan’s best friend, both sharing the fact that they have an absent father and a neglectful mother, and is not shy in hiding her unsettling hatred for Grace’s relationship with him, or her affections towards Leo that aren’t explained until closer to the end. Despite everything, I couldn’t help feeling terribly sorry for her.
Notable side characters include Rhea, the eccentrically-dressed elderly Holocaust survivor who’s memoir Adele is editing and who befriends Pip, allowing her to walk Rhea’s dog-sized rabbit. Her tellings of the death of the young girl, Tyler’s aunt, in the garden several years ago sets both Pip and Adele forward in their search for the truth. Then Cecilia Rednough, Tyler’s mom and a cold character, though you don’t get to the root of how rotten she truly is until the end. Then there is Gordon Howes (nicknamed “Puppy” for unexplained reasons), Leo’s father and the grandfather of Willow, Fern and Catkin. He is generally disliked by the family, though they take care of him before and after he had to get his foot amputated due to diabetes. He’s a grumpy yet overly-confident old man, more embarrassing than threatening, and we don’t see too much of his perverted handsy side, though we hear about it a lot from Adele and Rhea. Finally, there’s Chris, Grace and Pip’s father who is talked about in entirely negative terms for most of the book until he appears at the end, healthy and ready to be a father again. Chris is the one I felt especially bad for; mentally ill but stable until his doctor’s messed up and his medicine didn’t work on him, leading to his burning down the house. We learn that his friends all left him, and Clare herself is quick to cut ties with him, never visiting him in the hospital and getting the doctors not to share her new address with him, which I can understand. Grace is also quick to hate him, though Pip, not to young to understand what he did wrong, is quick to forgive him and want him back desperately. He could only rely on a woman who’d been obese with him when he was stable, but who ended up being very helpful in his recovery after he was released.
Jewell was already a well-established author by the time ‘The Girls in the Garden’ rolled around and I can see why. Her descriptions weren’t loaded with details on details on details (something I found in other contemporary books I’ve picked up in the past), but they were elegant in the most simplistic of manners so everything was laid out pretty clearly.
The “garden”, which is really a park enclosed by the backs and fronts of houses and apartments, was naturally the focus of the book’s descriptions and I found myself at first lost before I realized, and before the book itself point out, that no one house saw the garden in the same way–literally and figuratively. Some saw it as a safe place, another parent that would raise the neighbourhood kids. Some saw it as a hiding spot for predators. Some saw it as just a fun place to have a large festival or two. There’s nothing I love better than when the setting of a book is a character all on it’s own, and no doubt, the garden was just as complex as some of the human characters.
Jewell should maybe not have touched on mental illness in general before writing this book. Grace and Pip’s father being schizophrenic, and thus pictured as a violent monster for much of the book, was uncomfortable and the lack of sympathy he got was, from what I have heard, rather realistic though I don’t think the injustice he was inflicted with was touched upon properly. However, despite my discomfort, I can still understand why Clare felt so unsafe around him. I just felt like the issue could have been handled better. Then there’s Roger, Dylan’s mentally ill older brother who only appeared to be in the book for the sole purpose of making Dylan look like an angel for taking care of him when Roger visits them. Which is all kinds of eeeeeeeeh.
Overall, I quite enjoyed the book. It was artful and compelling, with interesting characters and suspense that drove the book forward. The ending is so gut-wrenching and rather horrifying in a sharp way but I was satisfied with it.
My Rating: 3.5/5