summer reading: the girl in the garden

To really earn its cred as a good summer read, a book has to perform several functions at one time. First, it must amuse. Second, it must spin a tale of adventure without veering into territory that requires too much thinking while the reader flips pages poolside. Finally, a good summer read must linger like a mouthful of sweet-tart sorbet, dissolving slowly, giving you something to think about. The Girl in the Garden, by Kamala Nair is such a novel.

Nair’s first novel is part coming of age story, part fairytale. The story begins in the present as twenty-something Rakhee is about to leave her fiancé with a note promising she will return when she has taken care of the one shameful thing from her past that she has hidden from him. Who can’t love a beginning like that? From the start, Rakhee is on the run and the reader must follow or be left wobbling in the young woman’s wake.

The narrative of the story quickly shifts from adult Rakhee to ten-year-old Rakhee, whose parents are from India but meet by mutual acquaintance once both are in America. The tale begins to spin during the summer that Rakhee’s parent’s shaky marriage threatens to fall apart and divorce lurks in the shadows of every room, tormenting the girl who prays for nothing more than her family to remain together. Rakhee’s Amma is emotionally unstable and grows increasingly agitated until just as school lets out for the summer, her Amma decides to flee middle America and incidentally, her husband, to travel to her ancestral home in India, taking her daughter with her. It’s just a vacation, she insists, but we never quite believe her promises.

An American girl from the get, Rakhee’s initial experience at the extended family’s compound is a shock. There are suspicious cousins, scary aunts, a harmlessly alcoholic uncle, a semi-lucid grandmother, and a sinister near-relative, all of whom are insane or unhappy or both, and nearly all are guarding family secrets. There are also ghosts, and a jungle that looms at the edge of the family property that harbors the biggest secret of all. There is a girl in the garden, but her existence is wrapped in lies and Rakhee  is told to never venture to the garden because it is dangerous, but Rakhee ignores that lie too, and befriends the girl.

As the summer treads on, Rakhee grows accustomed to India and begins to love her cousins. She pulls at threads of the tattered family secret until it begins to unravel and she comes to know more than a child should of the family shame. She secretly befriends the girl in the garden, and makes plans to help her escape. But then everything begins to spin out of control and her cousin is forced into a marriage to save the family’s fortune, her mother plans to run away with a man from her past, and tries to persuade Rakhee that living in India would be more fun that returning to Minnesota for school in the fall. 

Sometimes exotic, sometimes sentimental, The Girl in the Garden is a story of love and survival. What more could you want for a good summer read?

Review by Cynthia Gregory/ceegregory@aol.com

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