This month’s selection, The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White, falls into a category I don’t normally read which is contemporary women’s fiction. After attending a session presented by Ms. Claypole at a recent workshop, I decided to read it since it sounded interesting.
The story is told from two points of view: Tilly Silverberg, a widowed gardener with a young son living in rural North Carolina, and James Nealy, a recent transplant to the area. Despite starting out in rural North Carolina, the bulk of the story takes place in England. Tilly’s mother suffers a fall, breaking her leg, which prompts Tilly to return to England with her son to spend the summer there helping her mother. The other reason is because James keeps hounding Tilly to design a landscape for his house even though she repeatedly tells him no.
The main characters are an unlikely pair since Tilly has chosen to isolate herself from society since her husband’s death three years ago, falsely blaming herself for following through with his living will decision. James suffers from OCD, anxiety, and other crippling mental health issues who has retired from his business at age 45 to work on conquering his issues. Due to James’ OCD, he persists in recruiting Tilly to design a garden even hopping on a plane to England to join Tilly and her son. Throughout the book, the two of them struggle to battle past ghosts which affect their current situation.
I had a hard time finishing this. More than once I wanted to just bag it but kept on reading because there were glimmers it would get better and more interesting. Except then I’d get disappointed as the story would slow down, the characters would become too self-absorbed, and unrealistic subplots would come into the picture.
It didn’t help that I didn’t care for either main character nor did I find the supporting cast very interesting other than Tilly’s son and mother. Why Tilly felt the need to lie about a potential life-threatening situation, only confiding in James, is beyond me. I genuinely don’t understand why her ex or James find her attractive. She’s nice and a good mother but she doesn’t offer much else other than an extensive knowledge of plants.
I found James’ behaviors and lack of impulse control scary more than endearing, while I understand he suffers from OCD and anxiety, a point hammered home ad nauseam, the way he acts from jumping on a plane to England because he can’t take no for an answer, to hiding important information like he has a grown son, bugs me as a reader. I supposed I’m to give him a pass because he’s good looking (debatable at best) and rich. Ahh, that lovely trope of no matter how messed up the male lead is emotionally, if he’s hot and rich, he gets away with it without too much second-guessing.
I suspect I was supposed to love Tilly’s zany best friend Rowena but she felt out of place and a stereotype. Another supporting character was Tilly’s childhood sweetheart who just happens to be going through a divorce at that exact same time and escapes to the village they grew up in. Naturally this creates a (forced) friction between James and the ex both of whom are competing with the ghost of Tilly’s dead husband.
The book is painful in trying to shoehorn in a romantic connection between Tilly and James. It takes too long to get to either of them explaining their feelings and when it does, it’s just awkward and unrealistic. If the book instead focused on developing a friendship between James and Tilly rather than a romance, I think it would have worked better.
Another thing that bugged me about the book was all the overwriting the author did. One of my biggest pet peeves and something I notice more with contemporary women’s fiction is how many questions are asked. For James’ personality it made sense to hear him internally questioning what he said and did since it was part of his personality but when both characters do it, it’s incredibly irritating. A lot of that could have been cut out which would have tightened up the flow of the story. Another issue I had was how inconsistent the author was in resolving twist both large and small.
On a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give The Unfinished Garden 2 pencils out of 5. It was forced and inconsistent in all areas but at least the scenery descriptions were lovely.