Review by Booklist Review
Walbert's beautifully written debut novel opens with Ellen, the narrator, telling her child about how she first met her cousin Randall, who was killed in the last days of World War II. Although she saw Randall only a few times during his life, he would write to her, and the two shared a strong bond. He revealed his secrets, including the truth about his parentage: that he was actually the son of his mother's sister, Ruby. After Randall's death, Ellen receives a small box of his belongings, including a book, The Gardens of Kyoto, which he had received from Ruby on his thirteenth birthday. Woven into the narrative is the story of how Ellen met the father of her baby, a man who fell in love not with her but with her friend, Daphne. The novel's drawback is the muting of the characters' feelings, their emotions never allowed to break through the elegant prose. Nonetheless, an engaging and unique novel. Kristine Huntley
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
"I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you?" So begins this ethereal debut novel, a romantic, bittersweet tale set in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, by short-story writer Walbert (Where She Went), a Pushcart and O. Henry Prize-winner. Walbert's protagonist is Ellen, a shy, sensitive and somewhat lost young woman who is completely enraptured by her cousin Randall, a bookish boy with red hair just like Ellen's. As a child, Ellen sees Randall only once a year, at Easter, but she is so in love with him that her infatuation affects every relationship she has in the years following his early death. After Randall is killed, his father sends Ellen a package containing Randall's diary and a book called The Gardens of Kyoto. In elegant, restrained prose, Walbert recounts how Ellen slowly pieces together Randall's life and unknowingly links it to her own, her fixation infiltrating every aspect of her existence. Even when she falls in love again, with a thoughtful young lieutenant named Henry stationed in Korea, her relationship is half make-believe: she intercepts the letters Henry writes to her friend Daphne and often finds herself picturing Henry as Randall. Walbert writes delicately on weighty themes, making a lyrical examination of the war's effect on men and women and on unrequited love. This is a haunting, thoughtful work that, without lapsing into clich, depicts the sad realities of love and war. (Apr. 2) Forecast: With its beautiful cover (evocative of Memoirs of a Geisha) and dreamy title, this book will do well as a selection for higher-end women's reading groups, though it may be a bit lofty for some. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
Based on a prize-winning story, this first novel recounts young Ellen's reaction to the death of her cousin Randall on Iwo Jima. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
A complex history of secrecy and grief is gradually revealed in this painstakingly layered, deliberately muted first novel, from the author of Where She Went (stories: 1998). At the outset it seems to be the story of narrator Ellen Rock's unspoken love for her older cousin Randall Jewell, a charming, intellectually curious boy who had shared his personal secrets with herand perished during WWII on Iwo Jima, bequeathing to Ellen his diary and an illustrated volume describing the eponymous Japanese gardens (the subject of petitions that their pristine beauty be spared by Allied bombers). But the novel wanders, as Ellen searches both her own past and the histories of other people whose experiences impinge on or influence her own. Her older sister Rita dies young, after marrying a traumatized war veteran; and Ellen's own husband Henry, who breaks down and enters a V.A. hospital, fades from her life almost as quickly as he had (accidentally, as it happens) entered it. Her uncle Sterling (Randall's father) importunes Ellen to "Tell me about . . . my son," all but paralyzed by a guilty secret that mocks a life of outward rectitude. And Randall's legacy wounds Ellen as severely as do her own losses: She discovers not only that during the Civil War the Jewells' stately home had been a haven for runaway slaves, but that it had also been the site of horrendous injustices, including an embittered freeman's defiant act of vengeance. The novel's separate parts don't quite cohere formally, but the nature of their interconnection is suggested by this telling phrase from Randall's book: "Tucked within the gardens of Kyoto is a shrine to unborn children, to lost children, to children too soon dead." The message isn't lost on the reader, but it's shrouded in oppressively plangent (though often quite beautiful) prose so concentrated on mourning for this story's numerous dead and gone that it disallows any contrary experience or emotion, or even a breath of air. Not negligible by any means, but awfully bleak and monotonous. Author tour
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