The Girl in the Garden is a sweet, exotic coming-of-age story set in Minnesota and India. Rakhee is 11 years old and watching her parent’s marriage fall apart. The speed of its demise is accelerated when letters from their native India begin arriving for her mother. Rakhee witnesses her mother’s increasing isolation and ennui as her father continues to bury himself in his scientific research. Rakhee’s mother begins to openly pine for India and her eventual suggestion that she and Rakhee spend the summer there set off alarm bells for both daughter and father.
Rakhee’s journey to her mother’s rural hometown is both disconcerting and strangely comforting - she feels distinctly American and is bowled over by the heat and dirt, but she also looks like everyone around her for the very first time. While Rakhee gets to know her young cousins for the very first time, enjoying their games and teaching them American games, she cannot help but pick-up on the adult talk in the background. Her aunts, uncles, mother, and their family friends are overheard talking about money, the family legacy, and her mother’s abrupt departure from home many years ago. What are they hiding? Rakhee’s anguish and confusion increases as her mother’s “old friend”, Prem begins to visit the family house, sometimes secretly at night to visit her mother. Again, Rakhee overhears intimate conversations that hint at her mother’s life before coming to the United States.
Secrets run through life in India like a river and Rakhee is desperate to understand how she can bring her parents back together and get over her increasing anger at her mother for taking them so far away from home. Part of her rebellion is venturing into the forbidden jungle behind the family compound. Rakhee ventures out to find some solitude and instead finds a hidden, walled garden inhabited by, at first glance, a monster of some kind. After running in fear on her initial encounter, Rakhee returns again to see what’s on the other side of the locked door. She eventually finds and befriends “the girl in the garden”, which only leads to more family secrets and the discovery of how complicated and painful family loyalty can be.
Rakhee is a likable 11 year-old and her experiences at home and in India ring true - she loves getting to know her cousins and is mystified by the actions of the adults that surround her. Where The Girl in the Garden fails is the manner is which Nair structured the novel - she begins with an adult Rakhee leaving her unnamed fiancé to fly to India. The book itself is written as though it is a letter to her fiancé - a character the reader never knows or cares about. Rakhee’s story stands alone well enough and this lame plot device just isn’t necessary and takes the reader out of young Rakhee’s story. I read an Advance Readers Copy (ARC) that I received at a conference, so perhaps this will change, but I doubt it. Unfortunately, it transforms the whole tenor of the book from a coming-of-age story into more of an adult, quasi-romance story. While I liked “The Girl in the Garden” and would even recommend it to an adult book club for its luscious descriptions of Indian food, customs, and dress, it wasn’t structured and conceived well enough to endorse wholeheartedly.