A group of disparate characters reconstruct a formal garden and find unexpected connections in Spencer’s debut novel.
Katy Bodden has returned to Mississippi to live in a house bequeathed to her by the late George Trotter, her grandparents’ gardener. There, she has a new employee—a gardener named Daniel. Katy spends her days painting images of trees and flowers in her attic studio. Her habit of cutting herself suggests that she’s suffering from the effects of a childhood trauma, traces of which come through in italicized passages. One day, Daniel and Katy see a red plane flying overhead. The pilot, Martin Rainer, is the new caretaker of the local airstrip, and his deliveries make him a regular visitor at Katy’s. When Martin helps Daniel prune an overgrown hedge, they discover a hidden meadow, and Katy emerges from her numbness to launch into a new project—re-establishing George’s garden. In the meantime, she and Martin fall in love. The book has some beautiful descriptive passages (“the sawing trill of cicadas…the breeze that moved languidly into the attic windows”), and Spencer uses flashbacks and recurring items—a lizard cage, newspapers—to create a gentle sense of mystery. The objects, in particular, cleverly ground the book in the physical world as Katy’s isolation (and her belief in George’s ghostly presence) make early chapters feel dreamlike and slightly disorienting. The central characters struggle with major issues: Katy was in foster homes after her mother’s death; Daniel was a journalist in war-torn Afghanistan and has an estranged son; and Martin has a prosthetic leg due to a plane crash that killed his parents and brother. However, through a combination of chance and design, they start to experience emotional restoration, stemming from an event 22 years ago. The links between the characters will require readers to suspend their disbelief, and Spencer sometimes overloads her story with significance, as in the final paragraph, which takes on a cosmic scope. Readers will forgive these relative minor flaws, however, as they’re embedded in appealingly smooth and literary prose.
A low-key, offbeat, and winsome story of hurts healed.