The Forbidden Garden
The Forbidden Garden is a story of a haunted Shakespeare Garden in Wiltshire, England, and brings together together a troubled American horticulturalist and a troubled English rector. I confess to never having heard the term ‘Shakespeare Garden’, but thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that it’s a themed garden that cultivates plants mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. So – is this example a malevolent garden or merely an oft neglected one that has defied any attempt to bring it back to life?
Sorrel Sparrow is a gifted gardener who lives with her sisters in the small New England town of Granite Point. The Sparrow sisters’ magical ability to grow things bigger and longer causes the townspeople to eye them with suspicion, and even to believe them capable of witchcraft. The previous summer, the accusation was levelled at them following the death of a child, and they were ostracized and harassed. Only recently have they and their nursery begun to recover and the siblings begun to find their footing again. While Sorrel’s sisters found husbands during that terrible summer, she has been struggling on alone. So she jumps at the opportunity to leave behind the harsh old memories by crossing an ocean to take up the difficult task of resurrecting the ancient Shakespeare Garden in England.
Lord Graham Kirkwood hires Sorrel following an introduction by his sister, even though his wife, Lady Stella, has misgivings. Stella feels that the garden is enough of an uncanny mystery as to make dropping an innocent stranger into the middle of their lives at Kirkwood Hall with no prior warning of the ’dangers’ is unfair. But Graham is adamant that Sorrel is the answer to their prayers and hopes for their garden.
I believe they are meant for each other, the garden and the girl.
I never quite understood why Graham was so certain. It does turn out that he is right, but his emphasis is both too farsighted and farfetched.
Sorrel arrives for her eight-week stint one early spring morning and is picked up at the airport by Stella’s enigmatic and taciturn brother, Andrew Warburton. These early scenes with Andrew are funny and are instrumental in establishing his forgetful, professorial character. Unfortunately, that levity and light-hearted style of writing is not carried further into the book.
Sorrel and Andrew spend a few days exploring London, and getting to know each other. The romance is the weakest part of the book in terms of development. Sorrel and Andrew start out rubbing each other the wrong way but their regard for each other develops at a rapid clip that is choppy and not congruent with their character development. Telling rather than showing, and head-hopping further confuses the narrative.
Sorrel’s work truly begins once they remove to Kirkwood Hall and she meets Gabe, the ancient steward who knows more about the estate than anyone alive. However, it’s only when she sets her sights on the ravages of the Shakespeare Garden does Sorrel fully understand what a monumental task she’s taken on.
Here were six ruined parterres defined by wide gravel paths, all set into a precise rhombus. Any flowers or fruit, any shade trees or ornamental shrubs were long, long gone. The soil itself stirred under Sorrel’s boots like powder sending up puffs of fine grit and the iron tang of rust and decay.
The passages in the book that deal with horticulture and gardening are knowledgeable and lovely. The garden is treated as a character with physical and emotional depths that shapes and informs all aspects of the story. My issue here was with Sorrel’s research into Elizabethan era plants. She goes for one day to the library at the New Globe and to the Chelsea Physic Garden in London and within a few hours, she has mapped out how she wants the Shakespeare Garden to be laid out, sight unseen. She does do some more ongoing research as the story progresses, but I remained unconvinced that she truly knew which plants to source.
Ms. Herrick’s descriptive prose is skillful and draws the reader in, whether she is showing us the Sparrow Nursery or the interior of Ivy House, the London home of the Kirkwoods. For a foodie, there’s much joy to be found here. From Sorrel’s sister, Nettie’s, soul cooking to Andrew’s culinary skills to other delicious descriptions of food, I stayed hungry as I read .
The Forbidden Garden is not a standalone, because much of Sorrel’s characterization is developed in the author’s previous book, The Sparrow Sisters, and there’s the definite feeling here of a conversation being carried forward rather than a separate story branch that’s fully developed and well integrated.
Despite the prose and writing skills of the author, the book is under-developed and much of the story feels rushed. The premise – of a young woman’s self-discovery mirroring her uncovering of the secrets of a neglected garden – was a promising one, but the execution proved disappointing and therefore, I cannot award the book a higher rating or a recommendation.