Book Review: “The Walled Garden” by Robin Farrar Maass

Please note: I first published this book review on the “Goodreads”-website in 2023.

My rating: 3 (of 5) “stars”

I bought a copy of this book via Amazon UK, which was basically self-published by the author, Robin Farrar Maass. SparkPress is officially listed as the publisher, but authors have to finance the printing of their books themselves. SparkPress offers a few extra services, and the company describes itself as a hybrid publisher.

I originally awarded this book only 2 “stars”, but I’ve since upgraded my rating to 3 “stars.” I do think the author did an excellent job self-publishing and promoting her book, and I don’t only want to rate the story, but the whole “package,” especially if an author self-publishes.

I love the idea of incorporating a real book about the language of flowers into a story, and making that language part of the plot. That’s why I bought this book, and I think that the author succeeds in incorporating the language of flowers into the plot.

However, ….

I guessed the secret at the heart of this story and major plot points well in advance, and that’s a major flaw of this book. I was bored from page one — when I guessed the secret — all through to the end. The writer foreshadows each plot point, but unfortunately not subtly enough, so I could easily guess well in advance what would happen next – and it did.

The story lacks a strong antagonist; there’s a subplot which doesn’t amount to much, and is fairly easily resolved at the end. The “villain” of that subplot is a fairly ridiculous figure, and the subplot isn’t incorporated well into the story; it’s hinted at in the early chapters of the book, but then all but disappears until the final chapters, when it’s put front and center. This story structure didn’t work for me.

The book’s characters aren’t particularly complex figures, they don’t have many layers to them. I wasn’t interested in any of them as people, and they won’t linger in my mind now that I’ve finished reading the book.

There’s one character, Elizabeth Blackspear, a deceased poet and garden designer, whose life and a secret about her life are at the center of this novel. Yet I never quite believed that she supposedly was a famous garden designer or a world-renowned poet – the poetry, writen by the novel’s author – didn’t impress me all that much, and even all the detailed descriptions of the two gardens designed by her didn’t convince me that she supposedly was some sort of female Lancelot “Capability” Brown.

The book’s dialogue is another weakness, it’s on-the-nose: there’s no subtlety to it. Most of the time, the characters basically say what they mean, and mean what they say.

There’s one additional element which ruined the book for me, and that’s the author’s decision to tell her story in present tense. I would’ve preferred it if the story had been told in past tense. The story takes place in 1952, 2009, and 2014 — and it’s all told in present tense. That’s just weird, and I hated it. But of course that’s a personal preference/dislike, other readers might enjoy this particular creative choice.

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