In The Garden trilogy, by Nora Roberts (a joint review)

17 Aug

So I have converted my significant other to romance novels. Of course, he was open minded enough to give them a chance, but hey, I started the process. Just recently we read the In the Garden trilogy out loud to each other *pause for incredulous stares* Yes, we do this. We read alternate chapters to each other. Deal.

Anyway. I had read the books when they came out first, and had re-read the first two a few times since, but this was the first time I read the three of them one after another. And of course, I had a terrific idea: a joint review of the trilogy.

Please brace yourselves, as it’s a tad longer than usual–after all, it’s three books. Have some coffee, and enjoy.

In the Garden trilogy (Blue Dahlia, Black Rose and Red Lily), by Nora Roberts

The In the Garden trilogy by Nora Roberts centers around Harper House – a stately mansion in Memphis that has been in the Harper family for more than a century – and those who live in it. The novels mix contemporary love stories with the Southern belief in the supernatural as well as the charm, connections, traditions of more genteel times. Each novel follows the development of the love story between two main characters, while advancing their quest to discover the full story of the entity known as The Harper Bride, who has shared the house and grounds with the Harpers for at least a century.

Three women meet at a crossroads in their lives, each searching for new ways to grow—and find in each other the courage to take chances and embrace the future.

Part of the hallmark of Ms Roberts’ writing is her ability to create a sense of community by introducing characters and allowing the reader to participate in the evolution of their relationships—be these friendship, romantic, working relationships, what have you. These three books show the reader how a disparate cast of characters develop into a family in the best sense of the word.

In order to write a cohesive, comprehensive and coherent review of the trilogy as a whole, we will first offer a brief overview of the three novels, followed by a more detailed discussion of each character, overall plotting, pacing, and writing style. At the end we will both give our grades for each book and for the trilogy.

Blue Dahlia

The first novel, Blue Dahlia, follows Stella Rothchild, a widow with two young sons, who returns to the city of her childhood, Memphis, where her father and stepmother still live. This novel both sets the stage for the main story arc through the three books, and introduces most of the characters who appear in them. It also begins to tell the story and unravel mystery of the ghost that haunts Harper House—the so-called “Harper Bride.”

Stella has a passion for planning that keeps her from taking too many risks. But when she opens her heart to a new love, she discovers that she will fight to the death to protect what’s hers.

Stella’s nascent relationship with landscape designer Logan Kitridge is the catalyst that triggers the change in the Bride from a benevolent maternal presence to a cold, threatening entity.

Black Rose

In the next book, Black Rose, Rosalind (“Roz”) Harper continues her relationship with Mitch Carnegie, the genealogist the group engaged in Blue Dahlia to track down the true history of the “Bride”.

Roz is a woman of independent means who thought love was behind her, but when romance takes her by surprise, she won’t allow anything to keep her from her second chance at happiness.

The haunting of Harper House becomes more dangerous to its adult occupants, and the behaviour of the Harper Bride more erratic, even as they unearth more and more details about her past.

Red Lily

Red Lily, the last title in the trilogy, resolves Hayley Phillips and Harper Ashby’s romance—and concludes the story of the Harper Bride.

The back cover blurb (which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the actual book between the covers), says the following:

With the undying support of her friends, Hayley and her new daughter have laid down roots in a new town. But when one of those friendships blossoms into something more, Hayley must choose between two different kinds of love.

Disregard that entirely—here’s a much better version:

Hayley finally accepts that her feelings for Harper—and his for her and her baby daughter—are beyond friendship. Together, as they acknowledge their love for each other, they begin to explore the possibilities of their future.

Issek: Now, let’s discuss the cast of characters. There are so many important characters in these books, let’s take them in the order of their appearance, shall we?
azteclady: Stella Rothchild: the first character we meet, and the heroine of Blue Dahlia, Stella is a highly organized *coughslightlyanalretentivecough* personality.

I: Which makes her exactly the kind of person Roz is looking for to run her nursery, In the Garden, don’t you think? Did you think that, perhaps Stella’s personality is a coping mechanism to help her through the events at the beginning of the book?
a: Particularly the ‘take charge and brook no opposition or discussion” part, right? I believe that Stella developed an orderly—and somewhat rigid—personality in order to cope with her mother’s instability and selfishness, but definitely becoming a widow with two young children furthered her entrenchment into that personality type
I: You’re probably right about the roots of her personality; at any rate I’m sure that her attention to details helped her get through the circumstances that left her a widow. In the sense that concentrating on minutiae took her mind off her loss.
a: Yes, but it also exacerbated her need to be in control
I: Certainly. I really liked the fact that she didn’t lose her sense of humor either. And she remained a great parent to her two boys, albeit a single one. They seem to be a self-contained unit when they relocate to Memphis, with no sense of anything lacking.
a: Yes–even more, there is never a sense of resentment, i.e. “why should I have to ‘sacrifice’ my life to raise them?”
I: Which is in sharp contrast to what we are shown of her mother. When Stella and Logan Kitridge—disorganized, outspoken, no time for paperwork Logan Kitridge—first meet, the sparks, inevitably, fly.
a: Of course they do–there seems to be nothing, including the color of the sky, that these two could agree on.
I: I loved Logan’s ‘filing system,’ loved it as much as I knew Stella would hate it.
a: Do I sense a reader identification thing going on here?
I: I can picture perfectly the dashboard of his truck, covered with sticky notes filled with ideas, schedules, etc. I think I’ve worked for Logan a time or two, in fact.
a: One of the things that I enjoyed most about these two, is the fact that eventually they learn to get over themselves. Stella by accepting Logan’s ‘methods’ and Logan by seeing the benefits of Stella’s organization
I: Like a couple of bricks in a washing machine, they have to round out each other’s hard edges — or be ground to powder.
a: The simile may be just a tad *coughalotcough* over dramatic, but in essence, yes.
I: After the somewhat rocky start these two get off to, the slow pace at which we learn about Logan’s background seemed perfectly natural to me.
a: Indeed, there is no info dumping—at least, on the characters (we’ll get to the plants later, right? :wink: )
I: Yes, Of course. The plants. *going to buy a copy of The Horticulturalist.*
a: Which would bring us to the mistress of Harper House and In the Garden and the heroine of Black Rose: Rosalind “Roz” Harper.
I: (Hey! I at least knew how to spell fuchsia! Hint: it’s not fuschia)
a: There are some superficial parallels between Roz and Stella—namely both were widowed young, with young boys to raise. Personality wise, though, these two are vastly different women.
I: Yes, that’s pretty much where the parallels end. Roz is heiress to the Harper bloodline and estate, a child of relative privilege and significant stature in her community. Stella comes from much humbler stock. But that doesn’t prevent Roz from being a very down-to-earth woman, with a keen ability to see people as they are. And, and, and she has a great sense of humor, too.
a: There is also a difference caused by the age difference. While not extreme. there is almost a decade of experiences between the two women
I: Yes, the difference in, let’s say, maturity in their thought process is very distinct.
a: Yes, and also… While not precisely ‘laid back’ Roz is more able to let go. She’s made mistakes *coughBryceClerkcough* but she’s put them behind her and moved on. Stella seems more afraid to *move* because the possibility of failure is present.
I: Of course a lot of Stella’s inability to “let go” has to do with her highly organized mindset. Bryce – ugh! He’s a snake. Worse, maybe. Roz knows that some things aren’t worth worrying about, and the things that are get her wholehearted attention.
a: And when those things get Roz’s attention… *chuckle* Well, it can be rather dramatic, no?
I: Whatever are you thinking of? Her rescue of the nearly-murdered plant from Mitch’s apartment? Or possibly something else involving Mitch?
a: That’s one instance, yes… erm… I couldn’t possibly guess what you might be thinking of… but speaking of Mitch…
I: Me? Mitch; great character, and the most believable among the three male protagonists, in my opinion. Smart, mature, and human.
a: Also a father of an (almost) adult son.
I: (No almost about Josh) With a history of (making and) overcoming mistakes and problems. Big ones, at that.
a: Alcoholism can be considered a mistake… or a weakness. But in Mitch’s case, his continuing victory over it is more a testament to his strength
I: I would put it in the “problem” category.
a: Because he sticks with his recovery
I: I sort of wonder if Mitch ever went to meetings, you know as a friend of Bill? He’s never shown doing so in the books.
a: I like strong characters who are aware of their flaws, and that’s perhaps why I like Mitch–and Roz–so much. No, we never know exactly what caused him to become an alcoholic, either… but we’ll have to assume *cough* that somehow he managed to overcome his alcoholism and mend his relationship with both his son and his ex-wife.
I: Interestingly, Mitch is as disorganized in his personal habits as he is organized in his professional ones. He managed to stay on good terms with his ex. and on very good terms with his son, Josh.
a: Speaking of sons… Harper, Roz’s eldest, is both a pivotal member of the In the Garden machine(ry?), and the hero of the third book, Red Lily. While very well written, he seems the least convincing of the main characters, to me. There don’t seem to be any struggles for him to overcome in order to be this so very mature and responsible man.
I: And my own least-favorite male lead in the trilogy. I never really connected with him; for some reason he seemed moodier than the others and slightly humorless to me, but that may only be in contrast to the other characters,
a: (or he could just carry the “I’m the first born and therefore responsible for the well being of the universe” gene) [like my own eldest brother does]
I: He did seem to want to take responsibility whenever there was any to be taken. Not that his mother let him do that all by himself. It’s not as if he’s a patriarch wannabe or something. *Sigh* I don’t know why he didn’t click with me, really. The humorlessness, probably. And even that is an exaggeration. Because he is just a good person.
a: He also seemed to get the least “screen time” out of the main characters–not that he wasn’t present, but, in many ways, he’s just less… active? Not as much participation–in conversations, events, etc.?
I: A little dull, considering the company he’s thrown in with, but a good person. Then there’s Harper’s love interest – and distant cousin many times removed–the irrepressible Hayley, from the Arkansas branch of the family.
a: Not that you like her or anything, right?
I: She’s great!
a: (and the fact that she loves to read doesn’t hurt her in my estimation, either)
I: And just the girl to keep Harper from burying himself in botany.
a: She gets some of the best lines in the three books particularly when talking with Roz
I: Some of those lines come from her, apparently, not having any mechanism from disengaging her mouth from her brain. She’s a pistol, as they might say in Memphis.
a: Interestingly, she is also the character who comes closer to behaving stupidly, for me–on two fronts:
I: Stupid? Hayley?
a: One, her (unilateral) decision regarding Lily’s father. Two, her inability to TELL MITCH ANYTHING when it happens, regardless of the fact that she’s agreed to do so JUST THREE HOURS PRIOR
I: I thought that–the father thing–was pretty mature of her, actually.
a: Or some such.
I: She’s not the only one who fails to heed Mitch’s perfectly logical instructions. Sometimes you just want to shout at them: “Go tell Mitch what just happened. Right now!”
a: Along with, “just like you just said you WOULD, DAMMIT!” *ahem* not that this behaviour irks me or anything
I: Uh-huh. And none of this “I’ll just wait and tell him later, I wouldn’t want to get anybody upset, and it’s probably nothing, anyway.” But Hayley’s wonderful, and—I felt—acts perfectly in harmony for her age, gender, character and background.
a: On that I agree, completely.
I: Other than the shoe thing, I mean, that’s just a stereotype, right?
a: From her favorite expressions, to her reactions, feelings, etc. I believe Ms Roberts’ has Hayley down to a T. On the shoes: well, either it’s a stereotype, or I’m a Martian.
I: “Take me to your leader.” Gort, Klatu, barada nikto
a: In a minute, first we got a review to finish.
I: What about David? We can’t forget David.
a: Hell, no we can’t!
I: He practically runs Harper House
a: He’s so amazingly great… and that’s probably my main issue with him.
I: Too perfect?
a: Nope—too “stereotypical gay guy in his early thirties”
I: And no baggage, which he definitely should have given his, er, circumstances?
a: He cooks, knows shoes, hair, fashion, housekeeping… hell, the ONLY thing he doesn’t know is plants…
I: He can probably pilot a 747 in a pinch.
a: with a nickel, gum and duct tape, yes.
I: And I want some of his cookies—no, that’s not a euphemism.
a: (can’t tell you how glad I am to know that)
I: Without giving away too much of the plot, what did you think of the story?
a: I really like that each novel can be read independently, because they have self-contained plots, while they also have an overarching storyline (and recurring cast of characters) that tells yet another story.
I: Independently, yes but I wouldn’t recommend skipping from the first book to the last without reading the second.
a: Neither would I, but then, I’m slightly *ahemalotahem* anal about reading things in order… :wink:
I: I thought that the overarching story of Amelia was put forth with a very deft touch… not too much of it to detract from the love stories, but just enough of it to keep the rest of the story moving toward a defined goal. And in that regard, I’d like to say that I thought Amelia’s story—and actions—in Blue Dahlia were weaker than in the other two books.
a: Also, there weren’t instances of info dumping—whatever had happened in the previous books was worked in seamlessly into the current one.

I: In Blue Dahlia, I still couldn’t quite reconcile the supposed threat in her presence with her actions. Just saying that she seemed unbalanced wasn’t enough for me, I guess. But in the other two books, her actions come to feel much more consistent to me.

a: More threatening? Or more effective in the physical plane rather than just a menacing “presence”?
I: More threatening, yes (in books 2 and 3) but also more logical—that’s not really a good description for the actions of a schizophrenic ghost, but hey.
a: Indeed, I don’t think we could ask for much consistency in behaviour from a psychopathic crazy dead woman, hmm? Particularly one that’s been dead for over a hundred years… if nothing else, boredom would get to her.
I: Boredom? I suppose—especially given that she only knows one song. But in Black Rose and Red Lily I started to come to terms with what I thought Amelia was trying to do, even though it seemed that sometimes even she didn’t have any idea what she was doing.
a: Definitely. Quite unlike our heroes and heroines, who all seemed to have rather definite ideas about what to do (or not) with their lives
I: Yes. One question: did you find it difficult to believe that parents would have no problem with leaving their kids in her care, based on someone’s word that “she’d never do anything to harm the children.”
a: Well, no more difficult than believing she existed, to begin with.
I: But that’s a given. And given that she exists, and given what we see of her actions, would you have left your babies alone with her?
a: After the events in Blue Dahlia, I would certainly have felt rather uneasy (read: terrified) leaving the kids in the house—even with adults in the same room.
I: All right, then, let me say a few words in praise of Ms Roberts’ ability to pack a phrase with meaning while keeping it completely in character (of the speaker). For example, Stella’s “He’s taking my little boy to go pee. I’m a goner.”
a: Or Hayley’s oft repeated, “don’t say anything important until I come back!” while dashing to the restroom.
I: The idea of family is so important to this trilogy. And we have some very contrasting views of what family means and how it is to be cherished and nurtured. Clarissa, on the one hand believes that the Harper family’s status and reputation must be protected – even to the extent of hiding the truth.
a: While to Roz the truth comes first, and family bonds will withstand any potential backlash from it.
I: And the newcomers to this “family”—Stella, her boys, Mitch, Hayley, Lily—are all, fortunately, of the same mind. Well, maybe not Lily, but you know what I mean. There is very little wavering in the desire to find the truth. Across all three novels there was a contrast between Roz’s—and to an extent Harper’s—attitude regarding family vs that of the Harpers around the time the Bride was alive; the one you share blood with, and the one you make.
a: Lily will grow up within an extended family that shares these values, yes. And this attitude towards family, love, truth, is instrumental/essential to solving the mystery surrounding the Harper Bride’s identity
I: Even though there were times when it was suggested that they could “get rid of her”—there are indeed some references to exorcism—the main characters felt it was more important to find the truth, then help her, if they could.
a: Yes, exactly.
I: Roberts’ pacing is exquisite. I can’t think of an instance where the story dragged or got bogged down in non-essentials.
a: I agree–but then her use of language is excellent in all instances; poetic at once, abrupt and short at others.
I: And I’m talking about the overall story as well as in each of the books.
a: Agreed.
I: She can take us straight from a quiet discussion in the library to a spooky “manifestation” in the nursery without missing a beat, without jarring the reader out of the story.
a: Yes! Since her characterization is so good, the reader can often tell who is doing what before/without dialogue tags.
I: Speaking of that, did you notice her repetition of a few items of “stage business?” Some examples: how often did one person “frame” another person’s face in his/her hands while kissing them? How often did one person walk in on someone who is in the midst of concentrating on something, and scare the daylights out of that person when he/she realizes the other person is in the room? Or the drop in temperature when Amelia comes, or is about to come on stage.
a: Ah but the drop in temperature is characterization for Amelia–and because of her existence, I perfectly get the fact that so many other characters would be jumpy over unexpected encounters.
I: Yes. I’d be jumpy too, if she tried to drown me in my bath. And, a lot less forgiving.
a: eeeeekkkk!
I: About all those plants.
a: Yeah… a bit intimidating, isn’t it? The reader is left with no doubt that Ms Roberts is a passionate—and knowledgeable—gardener herself, wouldn’t you say?
I: A little intimidating, but even though I hadn’t a clue about maybe 80 per cent of the plants mentioned—and less than zero about the gardening and horticultural techniques explained—I had no trouble following along. There were plants, they loved plants, ok. She is very knowledgeable about the subject, and I’d say she probably did a lot of homework for these books, too. (Did I mention that I know how to spell fuchsia?)
a: Yes, you did *chuckle* a time or two already… On the plant business… By the time the third novel came around, I had gotten a bit tired of the parallels between the gardening side—growing, fertilizing, pruning, caring for, etc etc etc—and the relationship thing
I: I was a little bit that way, but maybe my lack of knowledge prevented me from getting totally fed up with the topic.
a: Perhaps… or perhaps you weren’t really paying a lot of attention to those passages–what with spelling fuchsia a time or two in your head
I: fuchsia, fuchsia, fuchsia…
a: oh dear.
I: You have to admit that you can’t beat the care of a garden as an allegory for the nurturing of a family.
a: Definitely—and all that grafting and hybridizing, and…
I: And pollenization… oh my! Pistils, stamens…. right out in the open. And don’t forget swollen ovaries.
a: How could I? or any female, for that matter?

And now, the part that everyone has been holding his breath for… the grades!

Issek gives the trilogy an 8.25 out of 10, with Blue Dahlia getting an 8; Black Rose an 8.5, and Red Lily a 7.50
azteclady gives the trilogy an 8.5 out of 10, with Blue Dahlia getting an 8; Black Rose a 9, and Red Lily a 7.75.

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