The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell

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In an interview with Mary Hogarth of Lovereading, Lisa Jewel said, “Every person I meet is a walking story and I love writing about people in all their incompleteness and randomness, making stories out of the beauty and futility of existence.” She lives in London with her husband, Jascha, her daughters, Amelie and Evie, and her silver tabbies, Jack and Milly.

Bestselling author Lisa Jewell has done it again! With her latest novel, The Girls in the Garden, this storyteller weaves a complex cast of characters and plots. Set in present-day London, the reader is introduced to a tightly knit group of people whose residences back up to Virginia Park, a communal park and garden.

“Dear Daddy, Today we played with the gang! It all started on Friday. We were out in the park after school and the sisters were out there and then it started to rain a bit so they went inside and then the younger one, who’s also the friendliest one, Willow, said,‘Why don’t you come in?’”

And so begins one of several letters written by main character Pip Wild, a preteen girl who with her older sister, Grace, and mother, Clare, start life anew here in the park residences, as an outsider looking in. She misses her former life and especially her father, Chris. The reader is treated to Pip’s swirl of emotions in the letters she writes to him.

In this compelling novel, as much a mystery suspense thriller as it is a rich portrait in character development, Jewell works her magic on the page through details and dialogue. Unlike Pip and her family, the other residents have lived there many years, such as Hungarian Holocaust survivor Rhea, and they have watched the children grow up, move away and come back to raise their own families in this serene setting.

Modern mom Adele and her handsome hubby, Leo Howes, are the parents of three home-schooled girls, Catkin, Fern and Willow. They reside in Leo’s childhood home, which they co-own with his father, Gordon. During this time, the Howes’ charming life is temporarily turned upside down when Leo’s ailing father comes to stay with them while convalescing from surgery. Once upon a time, Gordon too lived in this Virginia Park flat and now, with his return, his shady reputation rises to the surface. Into the mix is 13-year-old Tyler Rednough, a tomboy whose single mother, Cecelia, never seems to have time for her. Then there is Tyler’s lifelong best friend, the mixed-race and mysterious preteen boy, Dylan. All the children seem to get along well, with a few minor skirmishes that tweens today typically face. In turn, the adults in this novel also forge friendships. Life in the park proceeds rather uneventfully until the night of the annual summer party.
The plot twists and turns center around a traumatic event when Pip discovers her sister half-dressed and unresponsive in the park’s rose garden. The ensuing police investigation casts a wide net over nearly everyone as a suspect in this horrible offense. This well-crafted novel will have you guessing until almost the conclusion. Who was the culprit? Is this crime connected to the earlier death of poor Phoebe Rednough, Cecelia’s popular older sister, who died in the very same spot at the tender age of 15 more than 20 years ago? Was it perverted Gordon or everyone’s favorite father, Leo? Did diligent Dylan overstep his boundaries or was it his 26-year-old special needs brother, Robbie, who was visiting? Is the girls’ own tormented father somehow to blame? Lines are blurred, literally and figuratively, as the grownups in this story were too tipsy to recollect the evening’s events. Poised on the edge of young adulthood, the kids are equally evasive, but for different reasons as they guard secrets and maintain fragile friendships.

“Adele sat at a remove, not wanting to be in the kitchen with Gordon yet not feeling quite like she belonged in here either. There was something heavy and peculiar in the atmosphere.” Jewell’s descriptive language and realistic dialogue bring the varied, eclectic characters to life. The ho-hum machinations of everyday life, the daily grind as adults and teens are all captured by this talented writer. They feel as if they could be your neighbors, your best friend, and possibly even your family. “The pavement was dusty and hot, the sun a burning ocher reflection in the shop windows opposite. A swarm of girls from the private school farther up the road were walking toward them, scruffy in short navy and sunshine-yellow skirts, skinny legs, uncombed hair…Pip saw Tyler’s lip curl with distaste as they passed. ‘Posh bitches,’ she said under her breath. ‘They’re all anorexic, you know…’”
The novel leaves you wondering about the ties that bind us–loyalty, family and friendships. It’s truly one of those rare books that combine reality with raw emotions in such an easy read you’ll find yourself wishing it hadn’t ended and looking forward to her next novel. ■