I’ve let a little more time lapse between reading this and reviewing it than I would like, but I’m determined to review every book I read for the rest of the year, so I’m going to give it a go anyway.
The Red Garden is a chronological collection of stories that centers on the inhabitants of a small Maine town known as Bearsville, later rechristened Blackwell. Beginning with the unlucky pioneer founders of the town and progressing through the decades up to the edge of the late 20th century, each story focuses on a different person as the tales move through all of the wars and grand events of nearly 300 years, scaled down to small town gossip and personal experience. Sometimes the stories jump from one generation to the next in the same family, other times the links are more tenuous, but each story is necessary to the next, making them really more like chapters in a novel than actual short stories, though the events of the stories seem to stand alone at first.
Alice Hoffman is a writer with a distinct style; I generally always know what I’m going to get when I read one of her books, and that is no bad thing. Many of her books could be classified as magical realism, including one of my favorites, Practical Magic. Like that story, this one is full of the fairy tale language of always and never that so often gives her stories a slightly fantastical quality. Her characters are also very clearly from fairy tale stock, as her stories are populated with beautiful, remarkable people and the occasional bad seed. Sometimes I had difficulty remembering which character was which, since many of the stories were brief and there were many repeating family names, but then there were others that stood out vividly, like the town founder Hallie Brady. Like all small towns, Blackwell has its myths and monsters, like the little girl apparition that appears by the Eel River, or the “creature” said to roam the surrounding woods, but thanks to the generational structure, we readers know the truth about the monsters and tall tales. Or do we? Hoffman delights in making things just a little unreal, so they make sense even when they aren’t logical.
I don’t rank this with her strongest work (Practical Magic, Here on Earth, The Story Sisters), but it definitely carries her signature strengths (language, whimsy) and occasional weaknesses (repetitious characterization). It is very similar in tone and structure to Blackbird House and The Third Angel, both of which I enjoyed but don’t distinctly remember. I haven’t read her newest work, but this book reminded me that I haven’t been keeping up with her like I used to, and now I think I will be looking for a copy of The Museum of Extraordinary Things and catch up on what I’ve missed.