Title: The Garden House
Author: Marcia Willett
Genre(s): Adult Fiction, Grief, Family
Gisselle's Rating: 3.5/5
Release Date: August 17, 2021
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
DISCLAIMER: This review may contain spoilers for The Garden House.
The Garden House by Marcia Willett is a tale of love, grief, death, and secrets uncovered. Fresh out of university, El moves to the small town of Tavistock following the abrupt death of her father, Martin, and inherits his home in the countryside called the Pig Pen. Grappling with her new reality after her father’s death and figuring out what to pursue in life after university, El accepts the help of her stepbrother, Will, in maneuvering through her grief and sorting through Martin’s belongings. When El finds Martin’s phone and discovers coded text messages from someone called “J” within, El realizes that there was more to her father than she knew. As El and Will work to decipher the codes in the texts, they get closer to the truth, to the mysterious “J,” and to each other.
The Garden House is a charming little story about family, the process of grief after death, and the revelation that, sometimes, you find out that people you thought you knew will have secrets, and that’s okay. However, it was difficult to get into it at first; the beginning was extremely slow-paced, there were a myriad of characters introduced that I struggled to remember, and Willett’s style appears to be (at least in this book) to provide as much detail as possible, despite it not bolstering the performance of the plot. An example of this can be found below:
The black car gleams under the overhead lights and, as he presses the button on his keys and the indicators flick, he takes a moment to appreciate its lines. To the untrained eye it is like any other large saloon, but to the enthusiast it is an understated achievement, quiet power and quality. The Phaeton is his pride, joy... and money sink. Bought to celebrate his command - and to irritate his stepmother - it is the perfect vehicle for a new captain.
Willett’s characters add a lot of dimension to the story and of our examination of Martin's absent character. Each person introduced – Angus, Kate, Plum, Julia, and even Will – provided their own insights into Martin’s character. We are able to see into their minds and witness their thoughts concerning events and other characters within the text. Yet, while this was valuable, I felt at times that these characters' thoughts were sometimes irrelevant to the story and served as more of a distraction; there were too many times the side characters jolted our attention away from El uncovering Martin's secrets, and instead we were treated to Kate's fondness toward Angus or Will's disdain towards Felicity, El's mother and Will's stepmother.
Moreover, for all the characters that Willett does introduce, we never get to know any characters outside of Tavistock, such as Felicity. There is a distinct lack of a differing perspective, and it is due to this that I feel that a lot of this story felt wholly biased and one-sided in its narrative, despite the omniscience of how its told. Martin and El's company in Tavistock consists of a lot of "yes people;" these friends did not take issue with Martin cheating on his wife (regardless of whether or not Felicity was a horrid woman) or El and Will pursuing a romantic relationship with one another, despite being stepsiblings. It just appeared that for all these people care for one another, they outright refuse to call each other out on their actions.
Yet, regardless of the above observations, I did like this book. The more I read, the more I began to appreciate the story for what it was. The Garden House is a tale of life after death and the love that exists thereafter. While the description of the novel lends itself to allowing for a more sinister plot, this is a simple story of a daughter coping with the loss of her father and coming to terms with the fact that there were parts of his life that she did not know. Willett captures the whirlwind of grief and acceptance beautifully, and while I have not experienced the loss of a parent at this point in my life, it was tangible enough that I painfully empathized with the pain that was tangible in the novel's pages. This doesn’t have to be a mystery thriller or contain a dark revelation of Martin’s past; to simply examine the impact of a loved one’s death on a person is powerful enough by itself.
As Vision says so beautifully in WandaVision: “What is grief, if not love persevering?”