I was really excited when my turn for The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert came up at the library. I had read a few blog reviews of it (I’m sorry I don’t remember who!) and knew, as a first novel, it was a bit uneven. Still it sounded good and I was enchanted by the prospect of the shoe garden.
The book was a bit bumpy. There were moments when it had an identity crisis. It flirted with being a YA book. It thought about being a coming of age story. Sometimes it wanted to be a mystery or a ghost story. What it finally ends up being is a story about friendship.
Nan, Mavis, Ruthie and Eve were best friends. They were always together and not only was their friendship special, they were special too — an unusual knack for gardening and herbal lore, a special ability to heal through the art of cooking, a certain charisma that made everyone listen and follow orders. Nothing so very strange but strange enough for their peers to notice and whisper “witches” behind their hands. But being special does not make one exempt from tragedy. The four are sixteen, seventeen, when Eve dies. There is a secret around Eve’s death that is slowly revealed as the story progresses, and it is that secret that spilt the remaining three friends apart.
Years have passed, they are now all old women in the their seventies. They have not seen each other in that long time. Now Nan, feeling her age and worried about her fifteen-year-old daughter, Bay, invites Mavis and Ruthie for a long weekend visit, hoping for, she is not quite sure what.
Bay is not Nan’s biological daughter. Nan never married. Nan was well known as an herbalist who could help women out of difficulties, and one day a baby in a basket was left on her porch. In the basket with the baby was a caul. Babies born with a caul are witches by default. Nan has kept this a secret from Bay but recent incidents compelled her to tell Bay about the caul and what that means. But Bay, being a teenager who wants nothing more than to be “normal” refuses to believe anything. She is used to hearing Nan called a witch. People come by in the night fairly regularly and throw shoes at the house or yell or, on Halloween, smash all the pumpkins. Nan has turned all the shoe “donations” into a garden that passersby stop to admire. Bay loves the garden and her Nan while, in typical teenage fashion, is utterly embarrassed by her and her ways.
And then Mavis and Ruthie arrive. The three friends carry their old resentments and anger just below the surface where it frequently bubbles up and burns anyone who happens to be around. When they finally begin to see each other as the people they are now, the old women they have become, they are able to let down their walls, talk about what happened to Eve, and forgive themselves and each other. It is this story, the story of three old women and the ties of friendship that stretched so thin they almost broke, this story is what the book finally decides to be about. We don’t get to read stories about elderly women and friendship very often. Sure there are some unusual elements, but the witch thing is so very minor, and really, when you think about it, women are often accused of being witches. You can embrace the light fantasy aspect of it or you can stick with the light social commentary on women’s friendship and behavior that the label plays with. Of course you can also enjoy both, which I did.
The writing is sometimes rough but it moves along at a good pace and the description of the flower feast is really wonderful. The Memory Garden isn’t a great novel but it is an enjoyable one. It will make you think of your own best girlfriends and remember just how special their friendship is.