The Night Garden by Lisa Van Allen
Pub. Date: October 7, 2014
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Ballantine Books!!)
Summary: Nestled in the bucolic town of Green Valley in upstate New York, the Pennywort farm appears ordinary, yet at its center lies something remarkable: a wild maze of colorful gardens that reaches beyond the imagination. Local legend says that a visitor can gain answers to life’s most difficult problems simply by walking through its lush corridors.
Yet the labyrinth has never helped Olivia Pennywort, the garden’s beautiful and enigmatic caretaker. She has spent her entire life on her family’s land, harboring a secret that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length. But when her childhood best friend, Sam Van Winkle, returns to the valley, Olivia begins to question her safe, isolated world and wonders if she at last has the courage to let someone in. As she and Sam reconnect, Olivia faces a difficult question: Is the garden maze that she has nurtured all of her life a safe haven or a prison?
Genre: Magical Realism, Contemporary
Recommended for: Honestly, unless you’re 1) a DIE-HARD Magical Realism fan or 2) extremely open-minded, I’d have to say give this one a pass.
Earlier this year I discovered Magical Realism and haven’t looked back. When I came across The Night Garden, it sounded like a fun, enchanting read. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of those reads that looks great in theory, but has terrible execution.
Olivia Pennywort is beautiful and, while not exactly cold, certainly standoff-ish. She’s at home in her overalls and unruly hair, spending all day out in the famed Pennywort gardens. These gardens, strangely thriving while the rest of the valley is experiencing a horrible drought, are said to have almost magical properties: simply walking through one will give you advice and the clear head needed to make tough decisions. Unfortunately, Olivia had garnered quite the reputation over the years. The locals write her off as heartless and rude. In reality, she’s cursed: while she’s seemingly immune to all types of poisonous plants, her touch leaves terrible rashes.
Sam Van Winkle, of the heroic Van Winkle clan, left the valley the first chance he got. After suffering an injury that left his skin permanently numb and unable to feel, he’s decided to return home. Home to the police station, home to his father’s legacy, home to Olivia. Although they were inseparable as children, one day shattered their friendship and while Sam never stopped caring for her, could Olivia ever feel the same?
I got about halfway through this one before calling it quits. I simply didn’t care about what was happening and started skimming. There are huge blocks of florid descriptions that would have held me in rapt attention in a better book (oh hello, All the Light We Cannot See!); The Night Garden left me cross-eyed and struggling to stay awake.
Olivia’s touch causes anyone to break out. Sam JUST SO HAPPENS to have had an injury that resulted in nerve damage (I’m assuming – it’s always described as a loss of feeling in his skin). How convenient. These gardens are supposed to be an oracle of sorts, but I was only told of its magic, never shown. Olivia’s dad is either eccentric or is slowly deteriorating – at one point a neighbor claims Olivia’s abusing her father and that he needs to be taken out of her care. None of this mattered to me.
What really sealed the deal was how easily I could see what was coming. I don’t even need to finish reading, I already know what’s going to happen. Olivia’s touch will somehow heal Sam. Sam’s constant talk about his family’s “heroic gene” (seriously – every other member of his family has rescued or resuscitated people that were supposed to be long past the point of help) and his apparent lack of it will come into play. Perhaps he’ll save Olivia’s father from something?
I wish I had something better to say, or at least something more to comment on. Truth be told, nothing about The Night Garden grabbed me. I didn’t care about the setting, I didn’t care about the characters. I didn’t care that instead of a bed, Olivia’s sleeps outside in a garden full of poisonous plants. The magical aspect did nothing for me. If you’re new to Magical Realism, please don’t start with this novel. If you’re a fan of the genre, I’d still say give this one a pass. Maybe if I was stuck in a waiting room for an hour and had nothing better to read I might be inclined to give this one another shot, but as it stands, I simply didn’t care enough to continue.