Looking for a good beach book? And no worries if, like me, you are nowhere near a beach . . . You can mentally grab your beach towel, sunglasses and some cool refreshment and pretend you're poolside or better yet at ocean's edge and let me (virtually anyway) press into your hands a copy of Lisa Jewell's The Girls in the Garden. Some stories, and this was for me one of them, draw you in and make the real world fall away as you get involved in the character's lives. In this case, the reader becomes something of a voyeur looking into the garden square and the secret and secretive lives of the people living in the houses and flats circling the green space. Pure and utter escapism but the kind involving a little suspense and mystery. One of those sorts of stories where you just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Opening scene. A summer party. Games, food, the smells of a barbecue wafting about. Everyone is out and enjoying the sunshine. The teenagers in the neighborhood move in little packs and knowing what teens are like, there will be drama (often of the unpleasant kind) and cattiness,but maybe a little romance as well. Two sisters. One is looking for the other, but when she finds her she will be shocked. She's unconscious, her top pulled up, her shorts pulled down. She's lying in a secluded part of the garden completely alone, bloody and all evidence points to the possibility of her having been assaulted. The younger girl sets her clothes aright and then rushes off for help.
Grace and Pip, just on the cusp of their teenage years have come with their mum Clare to this veiled community after a harrowing episode with their father. A documentary filmmaker, he has become unbalanced and tried to burn their house down. They escape with their lives but lose everything, and now Clare fears his possible release from hospital where he has been under treatment. She has come to Virginia Crescent, which rings a vast and seemingly idyllic green common, to start a new life as far away from the old as she can get. It seems so peaceful and quiet. It's the sort of place where neighbors look out for each other. The kids are always in and out of each others' houses and families can all but leave their back doors unlocked. It is a community in all senses of the word. They know each other's histories and idiosyncrasies are good friends but maybe gossip a little, too. Many of the residents have lived there for years and years.
Oh, but there are secrets. There are always secrets, aren't there? There is something or someone rotten lurking in the garden and Jewell lays out quite a cast of potential suspects. There are hints of a death in that same garden many years before. Is history simply repeating itself? There is the perfect family living next door, but the father is a little too friendly with some of the girls and women. A lecherous older man who has a knack for inappropriate conversations. Jealous teenagers. Maybe a father who's off balanced returning to finish what he began? A secret boyfriend. So many possibilities and so many motivations.
Younger sister, Pip, misses her father profusely and so writes him letters telling all about their new home and what she sees happening in the garden without telling him exactly where they live. So the story is revealed through a variety of sources. The story plays out in those sultry summer days, through Pip's letters, the girls and boys moving in packs--watching each other, Clare the mother who feels lost and at swim after her husband's breakdown, the neighbors . . . all eyes are to the green space, moving along in nice anticipation, building up the suspense of the crime you know has happened. But what did happen exactly? Grace lies unconscious in a hospital bed for the greater part of the story. But everyone offers some little piece of the puzzle and the solution, that final piece in place might show a different picture than expected.
This is truly a perfect summer read. Not too taxing to sit and read in the hot, sticky sunshine. Once the story begins to move, it rolls along nicely to the perhaps surprising conclusion. Be careful what you look at out your window or over your fence. You might misinterpret something. Or you might see something you shouldn't.