The Girls in the Garden
Lisa Jewell
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The Girls in the Garden
Lisa Jewell
320 pages
June 2016
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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I initially had mixed feelings about this The Girls in the Garden. Too me, its title suggests a romance, perhaps even a young adult novel that focuses on the attractions of teenage girls. I'm glad I kept reading, because the story devotes a lot of its focus to the adults in the garden. The narrative focuses on Pip, her older sister, Grace, and their mother, Clare, who has recently moved them into a house in Virginia Park, North London, beautifully landscaped with a two-acre private garden. The family have arrived in the Park just as a neighborhood summer party is in full swing.

From the snatches of laughter and high-pitched screams, Pip realizes she needs to find Grace. At first she spies Leo Howes, her handsome neighbor who likes to walk in the park with his dog following behind. Leo eventually disappears into the shadows of the encroaching dusk when Pip sees Leo’s older daughters, Catkin and Fern, and their friends Tyler and Dylan. Nothing prepares Pip for the shock of discovering Grace lying in the Rose Garden--half undressed, with her shorts yanked down to her thighs and her floral camisole top lifted above her small naked breasts. The reality of Clare, Pip, and Grace’s situation is about to crash through their humble façade. Grace’s brutal, full-frontal assault is another setback for Clare who recently had to confront the loss of her treasured home which was burnt to the ground by Chris, her crazy husband. Clare still recalls the night when she and her daughters returned home to find Chris with his arms towards the flames, shouting out profanities and nonsense, his eyes wild with madness.

Grace’s assault and Clare’s loss are integral to the plot but are also part of the larger issue of the randomness of fate, especially for those who grow up in these small insular communities. As Pip launches her own investigation into who might have harmed her sister, Clare finds herself inexplicably drawn to charismatic Leo and his gorgeous wife, Adele. They have decided to homeschool their three daughters. From the moment she first steps through their door, Grace is both intrigued and appalled by the girls’ unkempt hair and their “unworldly” clothes, this batty, tatty, disorganized family who have adopted the idea of communal living and who seem to live “very alternative,” almost verging on controversial.

Jewell divides her novel into two sections: the events leading up to Grace’s attack, and the investigation that comes after. There are layers of deception being perpetrated here, though Jewell writes as though she’s spinning some mossy comedy of neighborly life with set pieces polished to an emerald shine. Like a contemporary Lothario, Leo encourages the confidences of vulnerable people while making himself a crutch for others to lean on. He might dazzle Clare and Tyler (who lives with her mother in a flat upstairs) with his steady magic, but when Pip spies Leo sitting in his youngest daughter Willow’s bedroom holding hands with Tyler, she’s convinced of Leo’s complicity--not just in Grace’s attack but also in the death of Tyler’s aunt, 13-year-old Phoebe Rednough, a wild adorable girl who years earlier was found dead in the Park.

Pip spends much of her time vaguely jealous of this gang of children that Grace readily joins. But Pip is also wise beyond her years, eventually uncovering the shady past of the Howes boys--Leo and his brother Patrick--and their muffled connection to Phoebe and her little sister, Cecelia, who is now Tyler’s mum. While Phoebe’s unexplained death has left Cecelia bruised and scarred, Tyler carries most of the guilt when she’s forced to recognize that she’s the result of “some kind of mistake” that was never quite explained. The park, meanwhile, whispers in its wake, its secrets held close within its pathways and crannies, bowers and corners. “Things happen in that park differently to how they happen in the real world.”

There’s a fragile alchemy between Fern and Tyler, and Grace with their all of their “breasts and their attitudes.“ Their playing and their “hanging out” is about to evolve into something much darker. From darling old Rhea, whose balcony overlooks the place where Pip found Grace, to Gordon, Leo’s insufferable, bullying father who was seen in the playground just before Grace was discovered, to handsome, green-eyed Dylan, who watches Pip and Grace’s every move, surprisingly it is Adele who thinks back a decade to her stressful and dark life with Leo. Adele loves Leo, but she can’t help thinking that he had something to do with Grace’s attack and with Phoebe’s death.

Through their flight from the outside world, Adele and Leo have accidentally bestowed upon their children a freedom from rules that, as prized heirs, they perhaps never enjoyed growing up. Even the decision to keep the girls at home has probably warped their perspectives on the nature of friendships. For her part, Clare eventually makes amends with Chris. She’s also forced to pay back the sins of the universe for Grace’s sexual awakening. The novel leaves the future of the Howes family uncertain, but the kids, at least, seem destined to do all right. Their un-parented extension of the Virginia Park summer leaves them loyal and forever bonded to each other, whatever the outcome of their parents' marriage.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2016

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