four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
51-Mar-Apr-2011
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0

A-The Red GardenAlice Hoffman, in her 20+ novels, is best known for incorporating her own special blend of magical realism, historical fiction, and the supernatural in her works. The Red Garden is a collection of 14 interconnected tales. Recently reviewed: The Story Sisters (3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2009) and The Third Angel (4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2008).

The Story: Unfolding over three centuries in Blackwell, Massachusetts, a fictional Berkshire County town, The Red Garden follows many generations of women as they long for lives beyond their reach. In "The Bear's House," the fearless, English-born Hallie Brady founds Blackwell (originally named "Bearsville" for her friendship with a gentle bear) in 1750. In later stories that take us up to the present, the descendants of Hallie and other founding families encounter mysterious travelers, characters that shift from animal to human, and a garden harboring only red plants and buried secrets, which holds together the generations. In each tale, the secrets and fates of the town's inhabitants, set against the joys and curses of the natural world, play out amid the twists and turns of American history.
Crown. 352 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780307393876

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Each episode in The Red Garden is a marvel--there isn't a disappointing one in the bunch. But the cumulative oomph of Blackwell's history is Hoffman's real triumph." Karen Valby

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Occurrences that might otherwise seem overdone--an apple tree blossoming in the middle of winter, a blizzard in June, an apparition of a drowned girl who appears regularly on the banks of a river--are the stuff of legend, grown larger over 250 years of re-telling. ... The miraculous seems natural here." Jeffrey Ann Goudie

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"The great consolation, and inspiration, in reading Hoffman is recognizing that we all carry such stories, some almost as good as hers; we just don't tell them with the same attention to detail, the same eye toward forgiveness, the same balance of recklessness and restraint." Steve Duin

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The rhythm of this novel is different from other Hoffman books. It's like swimming through a series of small, connected pools or wandering through a series of train cars. They all move the story forward and toward a tell-tale heart ... and garden." Barbara Vancheri

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The wars, illnesses, trends and events that structure this novel--the Civil War, the Depression, World War II--should add a background of historical authenticity. But some of the stories are as unlikely as a garden that turns all flowers red." Anne Trubek

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"The strongest stories in The Red Garden are those in which the folktale form, despite its prescribed simplicity of perspective and voice, allows Hoffman's gifts as a storyteller ample scope. ... In the less effective stories here, the folk-tale form exhibits the defects of its virtues. Simplicity degenerates into simplification." Ann Harleman

Critical Summary

According to the critics, The Red Garden is among Alice Hoffman's recent best. She can occasionally be melodramatic, her stories overrun by fairy tale syntax. Although the magical abounds here--women become eels--there is little, if anything, that is overdone. Not every story is wholly believable, but "Hoffman's consciously simple style transforms people's pain into mythic parable" (Washington Post), so that the mythic then becomes lore. Only the Boston Globe cited the collection as somewhat uneven, with the best stories (including "The Red Garden") absolutely bewitching and the lesser ones simplistic and implausible. But that is to be expected from an author with her own peculiar, enchanting brand of magical realism.