The Unfinished Garden
Author: Barbara Claypole White
Published: August 2012
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Edition: Trade Paperback ARC
Source: Many thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing a complimentary copy of The Unfinished Garden. Receipt of this novel doesn't influence my opinion nor this review. The opinion expressed here is my own.
The Unfinished Garden is a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt, set in the forests of North Carolina and the woodland gardens of Southern England.
James Nealy is haunted by irrational fears, inescapable compulsions. A successful software developer, he’s thrown himself into a new goal—to finally conquer the noise in his mind. And he has a plan. He’ll confront his darkest fears and build something beautiful: a garden. When he meets Tilly Silverberg, he knows she holds the key…even if she doesn’t think so.
After her husband’s death, gardening became Tilly’s livelihood and her salvation. Her thriving North Carolina business and her young son, Isaac, are the excuses she needs to hide from the world. So when oddly attractive, incredibly tenacious James speeds into her life, demanding she take him on as a client, her answer is a flat no.
When a family emergency lures Tilly back to England, she’s secretly glad. With Isaac in tow, she retreats to her childhood village, which has always stayed obligingly the same. Until now. Her best friend is keeping secrets; her mother is plotting; her first love is unexpectedly, temptingly available. And then James appears on her doorstep.
Away from home, James and Tilly forge an unlikely bond, tenuous at first but taking root with every day. And as they work to build a garden together, something begins to blossom between them—despite all the reasons against it.
Write what you know, they say, and that is what Barbara Claypole White did when she created An Unfinished Garden. The author put a lot of herself, her loves (gardening), her trials (raising a son with OCD), grief and more into this novel and doing so makes this story feel genuine. Her obvious months of research are evident in the detail with which she explains OCD, health issues and gardening.
Starting with the cover: it attracted my attention with its bright and colourful cover art, with the title in a turquoise flourish of a font. Inside, before the novel begins, one finds two quotes representative of the nature of the novel:
"Many things grow in the garden that were never sown there." ~ Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732
"Worry gives a small thing a big shadow." ~ Swedish Proverb
We meet Tilly who owns and operates a wholesale greenhouse in North Carolina, is raising a young son and is a widow trying to live with the guilt she feels over the death of her husband. One day, while at home with her son, Tilly receives an unexpected visitor, James, who battles many demons of his own and has determined that Tilly, through her gardening expertise, is the one person who can help him to calm the turmoil of his mind. She must design a garden for him. But Tilly declines. No one ever turns him down!
As Tilly and Isaac return to her home town in England to assist her mother through an injury, Tilly discovers her ex-boyfriend from high school has relocated there as well and is newly separated, with two children. Perhaps their on-again, off-again relationship has a second chance....no make that a fourth chance? Then James arrives, throwing an enormous curve ball into the mix. He is determined and relentless in seeking Tilly's assistance in designing a garden for him. But those aren't his only motives and everyone is blind to that, except, perhaps, the reader.
It's easy to feel involved in their lives as the reader gets to know Tilly and James very well. I wanted to knock sense into both of them at times, to yell "wake up, don't you see what's going on?" Sebastian, the ex-boyfriend, just didn't do much for me at all. Sure he's handsome, wealthy, a great father and available and they have a history but I kept thinking if it didn't work before, what makes them think it'll work this time? A relationship built on lust and "safety" can't have much of a future, can it?
Honestly, I ached for James. I felt his pain and cringed at the thought of someone having to work their way through thought processes like his all the time. I wanted to take the burden from him. Obviously, I was rooting for him all along. Who wouldn't? There's something incredibly sweet and vulnerable about him and yet he is strong and wise and very supportive of Tilly.
As Tilly succumbs and the two work together in the garden, she teaching James the basics of pruning, weeding and finally planting, more than herbs and flowers grow in the garden. Tilly and James learn from each other, they find balance (literal and figurative) and support from and for each other. And I cheered!
Too soon! Of course, there's still Sebastian, insecurities, guilt and grief amongst the trials and perhaps it's not so easy as saying, "get over it." OCD isn't something you just get over, nor is grief and there are other obstacles that are a hindrance, much like the poisonous adder or the nettles. Still, I had hope.
"An unexpected thrill pounced, a longing for the surprises of spring when tender plants poked through the soil in defiance of hardiness ratings, self-seeded annuals popped up in unexpected niches and perennials died without explanation, leaving gaps for new plants. Her garden was a place of death, of rebirth, and change, and like her life, would continue to evolve whether James loved her or not." (page 359-360)
The garden is the perfect metaphor for the change, growth, potential and obstacles the characters within An Unfinished Garden encounter. Ever changing with the seasons, growing, blooming, resting. All transferable to our lives.
"The English author H.E. Bates said that a finished garden is a dead garden. ... It'll take a lifetime. A garden's a work in progress without end." (page 363)
But then again, so are life and love works in progress. And as satisfying a thought that is, so is An Unfinished Garden.
One day her boss sent her to New York, and she fell in love with an American professor who followed her around JFK Airport. Eighteen months later she was a faculty spouse, freelance writer, and marketing director in Champaign, Illinois, a small Midwest college town. She also started writing her first novel—a love story set against the world of eighties fashion and AIDS.
Five years passed; then Barbara learned she was pregnant, and her husband was offered a distinguished professorship at UNC Chapel Hill. The family moved to the North Carolina forest, and Barbara became a stay-at-home mom and a woodland gardener—factors that would shape her writing voice. She returned to her manuscript, took evening classes in writing at the local arts center, and slammed into another detour: her young son developed obsessive-compulsive disorder.
From that moment, fascination with mental illness framed her life. She ditched her first novel and began writing Dogwood Days, which turned into The Unfinished Garden. She also joined a nonfiction project for parents of children with invisible disabilities and blogs through the highs and lows of OCD at www.easytolovebut.com. (Her son is now an award-winning teen poet.)
Barbara is consistently drawn to the theme that people who need each other find each other, and is hard at work on her next novel…when she’s not gardening.
Connect with Barbara at her website.