Author: Barbara Claypole White
The Unfinished Garden is Barbara Claypole White’s debut novel and it is a stunning, emotional journey through the human psyche. I am a little lost for words at the moment, a very rare occurrence – just ask anyone who knows me, a little unsure of how to do justice to this engaging read.
White has written the first obsessive-compulsive romantic hero in women’s fiction and she has written him beautifully. He is a character who invokes empathy because he is trying so desperately to overcome his condition. He is deeply flawed, actually I wouldn’t call him flawed. I was going to change that and say he is deeply damaged but I don’t think he is that either. His brain works on a very different wavelength to most of us and it has set him apart throughout his life. Very early on we learn the basics of his condition but as the story unfolds we get to unravel the layers of James, we learn a lot about OCD through his discussions with Tilly. We learn of his triggers, his rituals and some of the mechanisms he engages to overcome attacks.
James is a mess of contradictions but he is also believable, real and brutally honest. Speaking of contradictions I am about to spout on right here but I can’t think how else to put it. He is a refreshingly different character struggling with OCD, he isn’t like the usual OCD sufferers you see in fiction who are often laughable, or at times dangerous; James is your average every-day OCD sufferer just trying to get through each day.
Tilly is a nursery owner who has always found gardening to be therapeutic and the loss of her husband saw her fall quite accidentally into the nursery business. The grief and guilt Tilly struggles under is held at bay by the tending of her plants, and being able to hide from the world in almost total seclusion with only her assistant and her precious son. Tilly’s is a wholesale business because it means less customers. Tilly is still hiding in her grief, not yet ready to begin facing the world again.
There are so many strong and important bonds addressed in this story, many of the characters having known each other a lifetime. How do you cope with walking into a situation as the ‘newbie’ when you soon discover everyone around you shares a history that goes back decades?
Tilly and James meet at her her nursery, after the assistant has failed to cancel the appointment, and he falls in love with her garden. James has decided to face his fears and the biggest of them is dirt so he wants a garden designed for his new house and he is determined that Tilly will design it for him, except Tilly is just as determined that it is not within her area of expertise and she is not in the right place to commit to a job of that nature.
A phone call from her mother sees Tilly pack herself and her son Isaac up for a trip back to England and Tilly’s childhood home; a place she has been feeling homesick for, in part because it never seems to change.This trip is not what Tilly was expecting, not by a long shot.
Baggage is in abundance in The Unfinished Garden, everyone has some and the effects can be further reaching than ever imagined. This trip home serves as quite a catalyst for Tilly, she is offered understanding and tips to help overcome the guilt and grief that cripple her.
There is so much to love about this book. The characters are drawn with a clarity that makes them impossible not to identify with, all of them are fully fleshed characters though not all of the backgrounds were fully explored; we were given all of the information relevant to the story but not a lot else.
OCD is quite a focal point of the story, it is a condition that is explored well and we are given quite a detailed insight. This is a wonderful way to raise awareness and understanding of this condition that can be quite crippling.
The story is told in the third person but throughout we are given glimpses into the thoughts of James and Tilly.We often got to read the thoughts racing through James’ mind, and also Tilly’s though much less often. James’ appearance and expressions often hid more than they expressed so having the window into his thoughts was definitely beneficial.
The romance and tension is palpable throughout and leaves you guessing how it will be resolved right to the very end, with some juicy twists thrown in along the way.
Honest, compelling and emotional this book dragged me from my entire to-do list this afternoon so that I could finish, and I’m glad I put everything on hold to find out what would become of this band of friends.