The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White was a bit surprising. I was prepared for a book about a middle aged mother finding love again, but I was not prepared for some of the complexities of one of the characters.
Tilly, a woman with a young son, has adjusted (seemingly) well to widowhood. Though she is from England, she has settled into life in North Carolina, where her husband, David, used to be a professor. Her thriving gardening business keeps her busy and she is an active parent. One day, James, a software developer, comes and asks Tilly to take him on as a garden design client. She declines, but James is quite persistent. Despite Tilly’s refusal, James is not willing to take no for an answer. She figures out that James may have some obsessive thoughts and treats him kindly, despite her unwillingness to work with him. She does not quite understand that he has been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but she knows that his thoughts get “stuck” on things.
Tilly is called away to her childhood home in England, and is reunited with her mother and her best friend, Rowena, as well as her first love, Sebastian. She is surrounded by her memories of home, young love and the garden of her childhood. She is drawn to Sebastian, as a comfortable and familiar man, though they have a rocky relationship together. But one day, James shows up in England and things get a little more complicated.
She begins to more fully understand how OCD affects James and his life. My only complaint about him was that the beginning of his relationship with Tilly was completely over the top. James shows up in England after Tilly only met him a couple of times and had refused to do what he asked. I am afraid that I would have called the constable and reported him as a stalker. But, Tilly doesn’t and she begins a friendship with him.
I don’t think I have ever read a novel that has such a sensitive portrayal of a character with OCD. Really, I don’t think I have ever read any fiction with a character with OCD. White does an amazing job of having James explain his thinking and his feelings. I felt as though I learned a lot about OCD, and James was someone I wanted to know. He was complex, made mistakes in his relationship with Tilly, and was able to make his diagnosis something more than the thought of someone obsessively washing his hands. The parts of the novel about him were interesting and moving.
I was not as fond of Tilly and the possibility of her restarting a relationship with Sebastian. He was a bland character and I did not find much to like about him. The “love triangle” never really took off.
Most of the book takes place in England rather than North Carolina, and that was unfortunate. The cast of English characters (limited to Tilly’s mom, her best friend, and Sebastian) were just not as compelling as James. In England, despite a health scare that moved the plot along, it seemed as if Tilly had nothing to keep her busy. She seemed boring to me. I would not have flown across an ocean for her!
Although James was accepted into the fold in England, it was strange to have him there. He seemed more stalker than guest. I could never get over the fact that he invited himself and seemed to want Tilly far more than she seemed to want him. I think he deserved better than a moody, guilt ridden widow who sought to understand him, but not to really love him. I give The Unfinished Garden an A + for James and the complexity of his character, but he outshone most of the rest of the book.
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Regina