Night Gardening by E.L. Swann
(Hyperion, $16.95, PG) ISBN 0-7868-6498-2
****
Had a tough day at work? I advise you to dim the lights, pour yourself a glass of wine, and settle in for a few hours with this brief but memorable love story. Oh, and don't forget the hankies -- you'll need them. If you liked The Notebook, or The Bridges of Madison County, you'll appreciate Night Gardening. In fact, it's better written and more powerful in its quiet way than those other two well-known weepers.

Each chapter of the novel opens with a quote from gardening manuals that emphasize the spiritual nature of the avocation. As one notes,

Deep within each of us lies a garden. An intensely personal place. Throughout most of our lives, this garden remains hidden from view save for brief glimpses during moments spent daydreaming or in quiet contemplation. But many of us long to make this imaginative garden real.

Maggie Flaherty Welles has reached her 60th year without revealing her inner garden to anyone. The only child of Irish immigrants, she married Adams Welles, wealthy scion of a Boston Brahmin family, to gain respectability. But by the time he died, their marriage was in name only, destroyed by Adams' alcoholism, obtuseness and inability to tolerate intimacy. Maggie's grown son and daughter now carry on their father's legacy of failure and alcoholism. Maggie has recently suffered a debilitating stroke that paralyzed her left side. She is half-heartedly going through the motions of learning to speak and walk again, convinced that her life is all but over.

Then she notices that her wealthy neighbors have hired a landscape architect to design and supervise the expensive remodeling of their garden. Once an avid gardener, Maggie is intrigued by the activity. Tristan Mallory, the silver-haired, blue-eyed architect, recognizes a kindred soul and returns her interest. Far from being repulsed by her stroke-impaired appearance, Tristan sees Maggie as a person of rare inner beauty. They begin to meet at night to restore Maggie's garden, which has withered from the combination of Maggie's financial and physical limitations.

Night Gardening skillfully portrays a fleeting but powerful romance between these two mature characters (yes, people over the age of 60 do still make love!). In its brief pages, Maggie's personality comes alive as both her inner and outer "gardens" finally receive the nurturing they deserve. With Tristan's help, Maggie heals herself, only to find her newfound strength tested by the thoughtless actions of a desperate individual.

This is the type of delicate, deceptively uncomplicated book that you want to read slowly, possibly re-reading a few sentences here and there just to be sure you don't miss anything. The love story and the Zen of gardening are interwoven seamlessly. Although there are tears at the novel's conclusion, they are not bitter ones, as Tristan and Maggie's relationship has had a quietly positive impact on all who have come in contact with them.

E.L. Swann is the pseudonym for Kathryn Lasky, a well-respected children's book author. I hope that this is not her last foray into adult fiction. Why should kids reap all the benefits of her considerable talents?

--Susan Scribner


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