2.14.2011

Review: Alice Hoffman's The Red Garden

Hoffman's latest is structured similarly to her Blackbird House: both novels are a series of linked stories that take place over time in the same location. Blackbird House follows the residents of a small summer house; The Red Garden tells the history of a town through the disparate stories of its colorful inhabitants. Hoffman is a gifted storyteller, weaving her stories around the many fables and figures of American history, such as Johnny Appleseed and Emily Dickinson. Her characters are complex, nuanced and emotionally charged. The true star of the narrative, though, is the language, which lilts and rolls through the pages.

Despite these accolades, however, the novel never quite comes together. Perhaps that is the fault of the structure - the linked stories do not provide a unifying plot arc, with the requisite satisfaction of a culminating conclusion - but the stories themselves are derivative, so that by the time I reached the end, I was thinking more about where the story was from than about the story itself.

The Red Garden attempts to assess the ways in which American history - and the accompanying stories, folktales, fairy tales, and myths - make us who we are. How do Johnny Appleseed and Emily Dickinson represent American dreams and/or disappointments? How can the history of a small New England town encapsulate our shared history? Hoffman suggests that despite our efforts to move away from our past, it is always with us. This observation is neither new nor provocative, and the novel stays within the realm of the familiar. Hoffman provides no new insights on how history and fable can impact subsequent generations, and the characters exist in their situations, largely untouched by lessons from the past: though they are aware of their town's stories, they are not shaped by them.

The Red Garden is an enjoyable read, but it does not plunge far beneath the surface. Hoffman is a great storyteller, and her language rolls off the page, but she does not penetrate the essence of human existence.

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