The Memory Garden, by Rachel Hore

>> Friday, August 27, 2010

TITLE: The Memory Garden
AUTHOR: Rachel Hore

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: 421
PUBLISHER: Pocket

SETTING: Contemporary Cornwall and London
TYPE: Romance / Women's Fiction hybrid
SERIES: None

REASON FOR READING: Someone linked to an interview with the author on twitter (Maili, I think?), and I checked out some of her book descriptions and thought they sounded a bit like something Susanna Kearsley might write. And since I'm always looking for books like Kearsley's to tide me over until her next release...

Magical Cornwall, a lost garden, a love story from long ago...

Lamorna Cove - a tiny bay in Cornwall, picturesque, unspoilt. A hundred years ago it was the haunt of a colony of artists. Today, Mel Pentreath hopes it is a place where she can escape the pain of her mother's death and a broken love affair, and gradually put her life back together.

Renting a cottage in the enchanting but overgrown grounds of Merryn Hall, Mel embraces her new surroundings and offers to help her landlord, Patrick Winterton, restore the garden. Soon she is daring to believe her life can be rebuilt. Then Patrick finds some old paintings in an attic, and as he and Mel investigate the identity of the artist, they are drawn into an extraordinary tale of illicit passion and thwarted ambition from a century ago, a tale that resonates in their own lives. But how long can Mel's idyll last before reality breaks in and everything is threatened?

Shifting imperceptibly from one generation to another, The Memory Garden vividly evokes the lives of two women, born a century apart, but who face the same challenges to their happiness and survival.
Mel Pentreath has just been through a very stressful year. Her mother died after a painful illness, and not long after that, she broke up with her boyfriend. When the dean of the university she works at as a lecturer suggests she take her paid sabbatical a bit earlier than it's due, she realises it's the sensible thing to do.

Mel plans to spend her sabbatical writing a book about a group of painters that settled in Cornwall in the turn of the century. It just so happens that a friend of her sister's, Patric, Winterton, has just inherited a big white elephant of a house in the very area the artists in question settled, and there is a small cottage on the grounds that he would like to let out.

Mel accepts the invitation, and before too long, she and Patrick become friends, and start spending a lot of time together. Both are on the rebound, and things soon take a romantic turn. And meanwhile, Mel has discovered some paintings by an unknown artist, and is busy trying to find out who the mysterious P.T. is.

Mel might not know much about this mystery artist, but we readers do, because Mel's chapters are interspersed with chapters set in the early 20th century. These tell the story of Pearl Treglown, who works as a maid at the big house. Pearl is a talented artist, and the nephew of her employers, also an artist, takes an interest in her, with the consequences you might expect.

I started the book with high hopes, but although I did like it, I found many aspects of it disappointing.

The most disappointing on of them all was how the device of having the two supposedly interlinking stories, set 100 years apart, ended up working. This is something I've very much enjoyed in the past, and not only in Susanna Kearsley's work. But this kind of thing works best when there are some parallels between the two stories being told, when when the story in the past somehow foreshadows the issues in the present one in some way. The summary seems to suggest that is the case ("The Memory Garden vividly evokes the lives of two women, born a century apart, but who face the same challenges to their happiness and survival"), but I just didn't see that. I couldn't see the relevance of Pearl's story to Mel's. At all. To me, Mel's personality and situation were nothing like Pearl's, and neither was the way she dealt with the issues she did have.

Nor did finding out more about Pearl ever feel like it was going to have much of an effect on Mel or her work, which could have been a way to make Pearl's story relevant. Discovering this new painter never, ever felt like it was going to be the sort of discovery that makes an academic career, because Pearl's paintings were described as good, but hardly amazingly wonderful. The whole thing amounted to an interesting footnote or two, but that was it.

It also didn't help that I kind of disliked Pearl's story and wasn't much interested in it. Was I supposed to find Pearl and Charles' romance tragic and heart-wrenching? Because I didn't. Yes, it's sad, but it's the very run-of-the-mill story we've all seen a hundred times before of a maid falling for the young son of her employers (well, nephew, in this case), and believing him when he says that he actually feels something for her. Charles was so obviously a useless, selfish idiot that Pearl's falling for his lies just exasperated me. Yes, poor girl, but she never came that alive for me, so I found it hard to care. Every time I came to a chapter set in the past I wanted to skim past it and go straight back to the present.

And the present, Mel's story, was more interesting, fortunately. It's not a high-excitement page-turner, but apart from a a bit of a saggy middle, the pace felt leisurely rather than slow and enhanced the wonderfully done atmosphere. That atmosphere, by the way, was one of the best things of the book. I really, really want to go to Cornwall now!

I quite liked Mel. She's a sensible sort and quite centred, but human enough that she has doubts and sometimes makes decisions that are not the best. I also thought the issues she was facing were interesting, both in her professional life and in her relationship with her family.

The romantic elements were interesting as well, but I wasn't too enthused about the two men Mel is supposed to have to chose between. Her ex, Jake, was quite clearly a very selfish man, resentful of Mel's successes. Patrick seemed better, but then he was way too easily manipulated by his own ex, and just couldn't see through her. It got to the point where he was waffling between her and Mel. I suppose that's probably a realistic situation many women go through, but I just found it very unromantic. The book does have a happy ending and Mel makes what I thought was the right decision, but it all felt a bit humdrum.

So, all in all, I have unfortunately not really found an author to tide me by until the next Kearlsey comes out, but I think I'd read Hore again. There's one that deals with painted glass windows, apparently, and even though I didn't get to learn as much as I hoped for about the painters Mel was writing about here, I'm hopeful.

MY GRADE: A B-.

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