I have not read anything by Lisa Jewell previously, so I had no preconceptions or expectations about “The Girls in the Garden“. Wow, was I ever delighted to find that I might have found another favorite author! The novel, rich in characters and setting, was just my type of read!
Though the setting was urban London, it could just have well had been a small village anywhere. The action in the story takes place for the most part around and in a communal garden shared by a microcosm of residents that live on its periphery. Virginia Park is a three acre park-like garden that is shared by many different types of families with many different incomes. It is gated, so that only residents whose back garden abut it may use it.
In reading the novel we meet many of the residents, but three families in particular are featured.
Adele and Leo Howes have three daughters. These three girls, Willow, Fern, and Catkin, have grown up in their inherited flat, which is eclectic and bohemian, much like Adele herself. A beautiful, tall, dark-haired woman who feeds her children health food, home-schools them and treats their ailments homeopathically. Leo, a handsome charmer, is so good with kids, both his own and his neighbour’s. Leo himself grew up in the flat, so he is privy to the park’s history. Leo’s Dad is also in residence temporarily as he has just had his foot amputated due to diabetes and needs nursing.
Cece and Tyler Rednough live on the other side of the park. Cece is a social worker and single mom. Her thirteen year old daughter Tyler, is largely neglected as Cece seems to care more for her work than her own daughter. Tyler has grown up in the park which has been treated as a ‘babysitter’ for many of its residents. What could possibly happen in a private park? Tyler has befriended the Howes sisters as well as a good-looking mixed-race boy named Dylan.
Years ago, a fifteen year old girl named Phoebe Rednough was found dead in the park…
Clare Wild and her two daughters, Grace and Pip have just moved in. They have a tragic history. Clare’s husband Chris is a paranoid schizophrenic who burned their house to the ground. Now he is being treated in a hospital for the mentally ill. Clare and her older daughter Grace try not to think of him. They are still a little afraid of him. The younger daughter, Pip, adores her father and sends him many letters detailing their move to the flat adjoining the garden, her new friends, and her new life.
The park is treated as an extension of the homes of all the residents who abide there and on July 5th they hold an annual summer party to celebrate.
The action in the novel is divided into three sections. At first we read of an ‘event‘. Then we read of the events that took place ‘before‘ the event. Then we read about what came ‘after‘. I loved this setup. It seemed a perfect way to relate events in a way that didn’t give too much away, but held the readers interest and escalating tension.
The ages of the girls in the garden are of primary importance to the narrative. All on the cusp between child and teenager, they are abundant with angst, moods, and self-doubt. They waffle between the aloofness of the teenager and the warm affection of the child. They have days when they long to be adults and treated as such, then they have days when they wish they could just be babies again… Their parents remember the not too distant past when they were that age and they are torn between love, fear, and frustration.
It is on Grace Wild’s thirteenth birthday that another tragic event happens at the park changing the lives of those who know her. What follows is a myriad of suspicion, worry, jealousy, and fear. Adele is suspicious of her own dear husband and father-in-law. Clare worries about her husband Chris who has just been released from hospital. All of the residents uneasily realize that perhaps their beloved park is not as safe as they thought…
Written with empathy and understanding of both the good and bad aspects of human nature, “The Girls in the Garden” is a wonderful character study. The mystery element is intriguing, yet it is the characters that move the novel and are its center. Despite what happened in Virginia Park, I found myself wishing I lived there too…
Many thanks to Atria Books/Simon & Schuster via NetGalley and Edelweiss for my copies of this novel in exchange for my honest review.
The “Girls in the Garden” is the Canadian/American title of the novel. It was also published in the United Kingdom with the title “The Girls” and this cover:
Lisa Jewell was born in London in 1968.
She worked for the fashion chain Warehouse for three years as a PR assistant and then for Thomas Pink, the Jermyn Street shirt company for four years as a receptionist and PA. She started her first novel, Ralph’s Party, for a bet in 1996. She finished it in 1997 and it was published by Penguin books in May 1998. It went on to become the best-selling debut novel of that year.
She has since written a further nine novels, as is currently at work on her eleventh.
She now lives in an innermost part of north London with her husband Jascha, an IT consultant, her daughters, Amelie and Evie and her silver tabbies, Jack and Milly.