The latest Alice Hoffman offering, THE RED GARDEN, is like an exotic dish prepared by a master chef. Not sure of the flavors on the first taste but your palette knows it has to have another taste. I felt this way about THE RED GARDEN as I was reading it.
An ardent fan of Alice Hoffman, as her intelligent writing and the complexity of her characters never fail to stun me. THE THIRD ANGEL is my favorite Hoffman novel to date and this one did not eclipse that but I still recommend it. Further, backdrops of the books I read play into my appreciation of the story and the unsettled land was not one that pulled me in, not a fan of the wild west. In this case it was wild Massachusetts.
THE RED GARDEN is set in Berkshire County, Massachusetts back in the days before it appeared on the map. A party of settlers were looking for opportunity and a good life for their families. They were tricked into following a wanted man, looking to escape being taken into custody, and his young naive bride . They built camp and a life in a town they called Bearsville because of the numerous sightings of bears. In 1786 it was changed to Blackwell because settlers did not find the former name to be inviting.
THE RED GARDEN is just as much a story of the original settlers and their ancestors over a 300 year period as it is the land where they settle. The land was not kind or forgiving to the settlers and they suffered hardship and loss. And the hardship and loss continues over the generations to come. THE RED GARDEN is magical and continues to make appearances in chapters that follow.
The characters themselves are not all likeable and their stories are certainly not upbeat; often haunting and sprinkled with magic. In each chapter Hoffman skillfully drops in to the town following a specific ancestor or visitor from 1750 to 1986. There are tales, myths, mysteries and folklore that run through the chapters and those that just make one appearance.
A child that drowned in the Eel River continues to appear throughout the book for some of the town’s permanent and temporary residents. The eel river like the red garden is a character and makes appearances in a number of the chapters. The chapters stand on their own but if you are waiting for all of the loose ends to be tied up with a bow you will be waiting for a long time.
If you are a Hoffman fan you should most definitely take a seat at THE RED GARDEN table and enjoy the 5 star meal she has prepared. And while I have to admit like some of the finest dishes it took me a while to fully appreciate all it had to offer. But as with every Hoffman novel I have read thus far, the urge to return to it in order to digest what I missed the first time around was overwhelming.
Bon Appetit mes amies, merci Alice Hoffman.