Gardens of Delight by Erica James

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Gardens of Delight by Erica James

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Fairhead
Reviewed by Sue Fairhead
Summary: A large cast of characters in a complex series of relationships, involving at one point a guided tour to some gardens in Italy. Sadly lacking in depth, this feels more like a TV soap than a novel. Not recommended.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 496 Date: May 2006
Publisher: Orion
ISBN: 978-0752877600

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Lucy works at a garden centre, her best friend is Orlando, and she's estranged from her father. Helen is married to the rich and rather overbearing Hunter, and they've recently moved to the same village where she tries to work out what to get involved with. Conrad lives not far away with his beloved uncle Mac, who had a stroke and isn't in the best of health.

Oh, and Conrad suffered a terrible tragedy in his past, Lucy has three elderly friends at her allotment and a grandmother suffering from dementia, and Hunter has two ex-wives and two grown-up children.

Confused? Well, these are not the only characters who are introduced in the first four chapters of this novel by Erica James. But by the end, I had realised they were the most important ones. Unfortunately, that wasn't clear early in the book and the rapid switch of situations and viewpoints left me rather bewildered, forgetting from day to day who on earth I was reading about.

On the whole, I enjoy this author's novels. Her earlier ones were light village sagas that I thought above average; she then produced a dreadful book, The Holiday which read like a Mills-and-Boon, but followed that with one of my all-time favourites, Precious Time. Three or four more of her novels since then have also been moving, thought-provoking and well-written, and I looked forward to her latest offering.

Alas, I was disappointed. There was almost no character development - perhaps it would have been difficult with such a huge cast! - and no real overall plot. There was a point at which almost everyone went on a short holiday to Italy for guided tours of some gardens, and I suppose that was meant to be the main point of the book, given its title. But it was almost irrelevant to the various relationships and events that took place at amazing rapidity in the lives of the characters, both major and minor.

I thought perhaps the novel would improve as it got going; sometimes writers struggle in the early chapters, but the latter half is so captivating that I can forgive the slowness to get going.

Sadly, this was not the case. Oh, I slowly started to remember who was who - except when a minor character was suddenly brought to the fore unexpectedly, as happened a few times - and I could tell who I was supposed to like or dislike. Mostly, anyway. The elderly Mac and one of the guys at Lucy's allotment were my favourite characters and could have done with much bigger parts to play. But even amongst the six most significant characters, there were unpredictable events or thoughts that jarred. Part of the reason I felt they weren't well-developed was that several times behaviour seemed totally out of character, designed only to further whatever subplot they were involved in at the time.

Another problem is there was far too much description of the past history of just about everyone in the book, much of it written in the pluperfect tense which always makes for slightly awkward reading. Of course, it's a good thing that a writer has a detailed account of her characters' childhoods and backgrounds, but not necessary to include it all in a novel!

Then the viewpoint switches were pretty confusing. I have no problem with stories from multiple viewpoints, but books usually work best if there are just a small number of these. I lost track of how many people's viewpoints were described in this book, some of them for only a few paragraphs - not nearly enough to develop any kind of empathy for them.

I couldn't decide whether Erica James has decided to experiment with 'chick-lit', or whether this novel was intended to be in the style of a TV soap. Or whether she submitted her first draft to the editor, and it somehow got published by mistake. Either way, I wasn't impressed. I didn't hate it - I was interested enough to keep going to the end, some of which was predictable and some of it rather discouraging - but I wouldn't really recommend it either. Except, that is, for those who like chick-lit or TV soaps in books since this is probably above average for those genres.

You might enjoy Almost Perfect by Delia Franklin but we weren't very impressed. Coming Home to Island House by Erica James would be a better choice.

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