It wasn’t until I took a pencil to her booklist that I realized: The Red Garden is the sixteenth Alice Hoffman book that I’ve read. Sixteenth. I don’t know how she stands with the other [as prolific] authors whose work I keep returning to, but my goodness, sixteen books. Then again, I don’t know why I don’t wax lyrical about her work at every opportunity—why doesn’t she truly figure largely in my reading life, sixteen books and all? She is a good writer if she puts her mind to it, and time spent with her stories have always been time well spent.
And wasn’t her Practical Magic my introduction to the Contemporary Adult-World Literature, witches and haunted lilacs notwithstanding? [And do I not return to it periodically, and realize that the judgment of nine-year-old me was right?] Am I still not shaken by her The Ice Queen, doesn’t the example set by her Blackbird House still make me wish I could commit to writing a book-length’s interlinked short stories?
Actually, The Red Garden follows the structure of Blackbird House: interconnected stories, all taking place in one town over the years, the decades, the centuries. It’s both a novel and a collection. A series of short stories that creates wholeness out of the town in which they’re set. And there are shifting perspectives, an array of your usual Hoffman characters: as though from fairy tales, built from hyperboles. There’s the ghost of a young girl haunting a river infested with eels. There’s the ghost’s sister who ran away with a horse trader. There’s the widow who fell in love with a man who planted apple trees. There’s the apple true that bore fruit all throughout winter, feeding the town that once steered clear of it.
The first ones—and Hoffman begins with the very founding of the town—are pure folklore. Though treated casually or matter-of-fact, as with the young wife who lies alongside a hibernating bear. Later on, these first stories—fact, as we know them—do turn into folklore in the next couple of years, woven in the collective memory. As the chronology progresses, the stories are more grounded on reality as we’re familiar with it. And this is where Hoffman shines: her unobtrusive whimsy. The fairy tale details are more unexpected. Contrasted with reality, they’re more disarming, fascinating, even disquieting.
Hoffman takes advantage of the limitations of her structure: the images are there, made stronger with every glance, she needs only to return to them. The tone’s established. And since Hoffman’s (and this particular book’s) strength lies on both image and tone, isn’t this recipe for the best book an author in control can produce? The tone is constant—and isn’t this the tone I’ve encountered in the fifteen books prior? From here on in, it’s only a matter of sustaining for the author. And, well, making it new. Something, I admit, Hoffman fails to do the more stories you read. The haziness gets away from the author’s control, the collective of images tend to appear willy-nilly. As a collection, this isn’t tight enough. As a novel, even less so.
I realize that Hoffman’s been one of those authors whose books just fell onto my lap [i.e., finding her in book sales, and the accompanying “Okay, I’ll read you, then” shrug]. Also, I suspect that her recent writings just feel like earnest yet ultimately pale imitations of her work from the 90s.
Like The Red Garden, which, while good, just isn’t her best. And, for some reason, I expected this—I am not devastated.