Do you sometimes feel like you’re in a romance rut? Are you yearning for a story that steps away from that same old plot? Have I got a book for you!
In Forbidden Garden, Tracy Fobes gives us the story of a young widow, Anne Sherwood, who works as a botanical illustrator for Kew Gardens and who has a mystical ability to communicate with plants. She is unable to gain recognition as a scholar by her Victorian male colleagues because her unlamented husband took credit for her work, and because she is trapped in the body of a sex kitten. Longing for respect, she takes a job as an illustrator for a noted Irish plant collector, Lord Connock. Anne travels to Ireland and soon finds herself captivated by Michael McEvoy, the handsome and mysterious Irish adventurer who travels the globe, seeking new species for Connock. She also begins to suspect that there is something horribly wrong with Connock’s garden.
The last thing I want to do is spoil the plot of this unique book. I’ll just say that it falls into the literary category of Don’t Mess With Mother Nature books. The most notable representative of this genre is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, but this book reminded me more of those paranoid 1950s movies about irradiated insects and lizards that grow to incredible size and wreak havoc. I like those old movies, don’t you? They were cheesy, but they sometimes had hidden depths, and they were wonderfully entertaining.
As is Forbidden Garden. Michael seems to be a typical romance novel hero – a charming and rakish adventurer who wears an earring and who calls the heroine “lass” – but that’s just the surface. Michael experienced the full tragedy of by the potato famine. Rather than being tortured by his dark past, Michael resolves to live fully and sensually in the moment. His characterization is not deep, but he’s successfully portrayed as the kind of guy most readers will want to fall in love with. Anne is an intelligent and strong woman who is frustrated by her inability to gain entrance into the fertile Victorian intellectual world. She, too, seems to be a typical heroine: blonde, spunky, and full-figured. But her talents are unique and it is she, not Michael, who eventually figures out what is going on in Connock’s gardens.
There’s lots of adventure and gothic-style intrigue here, which I enjoyed. As I mentioned before, the theme of science corrupting nature and creating monsters is a cliche that brings to mind MST3K and Mel Brooks parodies (“It’s alive!”). But just as those 1950s movies about the giant mutated ants reflected a justifiable concern about radioactivity, Forbidden Garden is undoubtedly formed by recent genetic manipulations of both plant and animal species. The horrors of Lord Connock’s garden are hardly scientifically likely, especially in terms of Victorian methodology. But the vision of a village population gradually and frighteningly affected by the food from the garden will be compelling for anyone who watches the news. Fobes presents this material straight, without irony or sly winks to the reader, and it is effective.
Kitchy B-movie stuff that it is, the adventure plot is sometimes more compelling than the love story. The central conflict that keeps Michael and Anne apart seems trivial and easily solved, and I was a little impatient with them for not sweeping it aside. But this is true only because the chemistry between them is so sizzling. I have to say that Fobes has a talent for writing very sexy and exciting love scenes. The novel ends with an HEA that is only slightly less satisfying than watching the bad guy meet his inevitable doom.
Forbidden Garden is not the kind of romance I’ll want to read over and over again. But it is truly entertaining, a fun and clever story with a dash of hot sex thrown in, and I found it unexpectedly thought-provoking as well. It definitely earns extra points for being unique. If you’ve been plagued by that feeling that you’ve been reading the same novel over and over again, this book is a sure-fire antidote.