The Girl in the Garden is a delightful, original read with unusual, true-to-themselves characters. The plot is enchanting, too, as is the backdrop of a small oceanside Maine village. Wallace’s paragraphs are often extremely long, a trend that is fashionable among many novelists today.
Off-center, unusual characters always make a novel special. Remember
Housekeeping? The women in Jane Eyre? This new novel takes place in a tiny New England village. The time is 1974. A very young girl, June, with a very young baby, Luke, and a man who is the reluctant father stop at a motel and spend a few days. They have driven almost across country, as June wanted to see the Atlantic Ocean. A few days later, the man drives off, never returning.
June is quite alone in the world. She has not had a traditional or loving childhood. She is penniless and shy to the point of barely talking, but the girl is also a hard worker and, as we learn, incredibly resilient. Wallace writes,
"And as she’d lived so much of her life in abandonment, she found
desertion a normal state of being, and in her solitude, she did what she
needed to in order to prepare for the infant…"
Once her “man” leaves, she logically sums up her situation and offers to help Mable, the widowed motel owner, any way she can. She pitches in, receives free rent, and settles in for a few weeks. Little mention is made of June’s schooling status, but we know she has not graduated high school. (“She’d sometimes gone to school.”)
However, the motel is due to close shortly as the long winter is coming on in coastal Maine. What will June do? Mable frets about her and comes up with a tentative solution: perhaps she can stay in a small cottage in the backyard of her longtime friend Iris. June could care for the old woman’s garden. Iris is a wealthy hermit whose husband died terribly years ago, who rarely sees people or ventures out. Iris might--and does--accept some help.
Two local men play central roles. Iris’s lawyer, Duncan, handles all her affairs. Another key man is Oldman Smith, a newspaperman
and aging bachelor who lives with Capuchin monkeys, a horse, and a dog. Oldman is one of the kindest literary figures in recent time. These men become fond of and solicitous of June and her child.
During the course of the book, June and Luke age. June talks more, takes good care of her son, and immerses herself into the new community with a great sense of relief, burgeoning trust, and a sense of security.
Iris becomes increasingly ill, near dying; she finally reconciles with her estranged adult daughter, Claire, a photographer. She grows to care about Luke and looks forward to holding him. “Iris came to love Luke, and June came to love Iris… she took on the role of Luke’s grandmother.” Duncan, who once loved Iris’s daughter, sees Claire again. A younger man, a veteran with emotional scars
named Sam, becomes friends with Oldman and starts taking June and the babe for rides. “She [June] liked being with him, liked his quiet ways…She liked how gentle, how careful, he was with Luke.” Many changes and transitions occur, and no big instances of violence take place during the timeframe of this slow-paced novel.
The only discernible problem with the novel, to my eyes, is that the chronology is not complete. Luke is first an infant,
then quite suddenly, he is a young boy. There are unexplained years. Does June leave him alone or always take him along while working? Does either of them receive any schooling? No one seems concerned where June came from; no one makes an extensive search for her family. This doesn’t ring entirely true. This interim and a few more details might have been chronicled in two or three paragraphs or in an entire chapter and might have made the novel more complete.
Perhaps I belabor a point, but I missed the child's years of living in such a strange setting with unusual friends and not much family, growing up and learning about the world. However, he does not seem at all wounded. Maybe it does take a village to raise a child, providing they are all good people.
The Girl in the Garden is memorable mostly for its colorful characters and their in-depth portrayals, and for the generosity of strangers toward an unknown girl and her child--and for the quite remarkable resilience, strength and ability to trust of a shy adolescent girl.
Wallace has two other novels: The Housekeeper, longlisted for The Orange Prize, and Blue Horse Dreaming, longlisted for Prix Femina in France. The author, from New Hampshire, now lives in Greece.