The Garden House: What’s In Bloom (And What Shouldn’t Be)?

It was a negative review that made me read The Garden House: A Novel, by Linda Mahkovec, a short novel that has received mostly positive reviews on Amazon. The review that caught my eye suggested the author needed to do her research on gardening:

This author tries too hard to paint a perfect garden picture for the reader. Mahkovec loses credibility in the first chapter when, in her description of the character’s garden, she indicates nearly every flower in her garden is blooming at the same time.

As an avid gardener myself, I would love it if my flowers bloomed at once, all season long. I have daffodils and other bulbs to delight me in early spring. The magnolia, sweet woodruff, bleeding hearts, pulmonaria, and irises come next, and now I have peonies.

This is the order of blooms this year, but it was different last year, when a bout of March snowstorms delayed the start of spring. My daffodils bloomed later, and my magnolia never bloomed at all. Flowers aren’t perfectly predictable.

A certain amount of variation is normal in real-life gardens, so why wouldn’t the same be true in a fictional garden? When the variation is more extreme, I can see why that would bother a reader (like the reviewer), but I doubt it would bother me. It’s fiction, not a scientific book, and it isn’t always easy to describe gardens accurately while juggling the other parts of writing novel. Errors of this kind are very common in books and movies.

But the one-star review had piqued my interest. It made me want to experience Mahkovec’s fictional garden for myself.

The Garden House is set in Seattle, which is on the other side of the country and in a different hardiness zone from my garden in the northeast. As a result, I didn’t bat an eyelash at the references to “cone-shaped hydrangeas, discs of Queen Anne’s lace, [and] full-blossomed peonies” all growing together. Where I live, I’m used to seeing Queen Anne’s lace at the height of summer and peonies in late spring, but these fictional flowers are growing in a different place and under different conditions. As the main character, Miranda, notes: “We’ve had such a cool, late spring that many of the early flowers are still in bloom.”

Miranda loves her garden, which soothes her as she adjusts to life as an empty-nester while also facing a “big” birthday. She’s turning 50, and “[s]ome part of her sat up and wondered why middle age, or any age for that matter, shouldn’t also be a time of hope and promise.”

As Miranda tries to rediscover hope and promise in her life, she becomes embroiled in a mild mystery that reminds her to cherish what she has.

The Garden House is a slow, atmospheric story. The sentences are long and descriptive, and not much happens until the end, when the mystery comes to a quick, somewhat improbable resolution. The last twenty-five percent felt rushed, and there’s a switch in perspective from Miranda to her husband that I found interesting but jarring. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Mahkovec’s beautiful, descriptive writing style, and I especially loved the details about Miranda’s garden. I read this book for that garden, and it didn’t disappoint me.

For those of you with gardens, what’s in bloom right now?

Itea (Little Henry) – May 27, 2019
Bartzella Peony – May 20, 2019

8 comments

  1. It makes me happy when a negative review gets someone to read a book! I do occasionally read a book I really think should be thrown out and no one should ever read it, but it’s far more common for me to feel a little bad about not liking a book and to hope my review doesn’t put everyone off just because the book wasn’t a fit for me.

  2. There is an elderly lady who lives in the apartment below me. When we first moved here six years ago, she could be seen watering the small flower bed under her window in front of our building and cleaning a bird bath out back. I think her health is slowly failing (she’s VERY elderly!) and I no longer see her watering plants. There is one flower out front in bloom; it’s pink and looks a bit like your peony. However, it’s totally flopped over on the ground! Are you supposed to stake them? I have no idea. If I remember correctly, this plant often does not bloom for terribly long. And the ants love the blossom! Weird!

    1. That sounds like a peony to me (ants LOVE the buds). Is there only one bloom? Last year, one of my peonies had only one, so I gave it a good layer of compost in the fall. Now it has five blooms. There are different types of peonies (Herbaceous peonies, tree peonies, and intersectional peonies). The herbaceous peonies, which die back in winter and regrow in spring, usually need staking. I wonder what variety of peony she planted. Many of them are pink, but what I’m picturing in my head is “Sarah Bernhardt.” I’m not sure why! (https://www.hgtv.com/outdoors/flowers-and-plants/flowers/sarah-bernhardt-peony).

  3. I am glad reading the book for the one star review turned out to be an enjoyable one. Our spring in Minneapolis has been cool and very wet. The grape hyacinths in my garden are still blooming, the bleeding heart is just starting, wild geranium is in full bloom and my strawberries are covered in flowers.

  4. One-star reviews are just spiteful in my view and say more about the reviewer than the book. As for the plants and flowers though I now have a lovely app and – from knowing nothing – am now able to identify everything I come across 🙂

  5. Your flowers are so pretty! I’m a hopeless gardener, in part because I don’t know anything about plants, but mostly because I’m very lazy and distractible and always forget to do the things to take care of the plants. :p

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