Recently, a new book store opened up in my area—always a cause for celebration. They’re a discount seller, so they don’t have a huge selection per genre, but what they do have is very affordably priced and they have a nice variety. On my first visit, I picked up several novels in hardback, including The Garden Party. I seem to be hitting on a lot of unusual reads this year, and this one certainly qualifies!
A rehearsal dinner brings together two disparate families in a sparkling social satire set over the course of a single day.
This enchanting novel takes place in Brookline, Massachusetts, where dinner in the garden is bringing together two families on the night before the wedding that should unite them. The families are not unfriendly but they are shy and leery of each other. The Barlows are a Wall Street Journal-reading family of lawyers steeped in trusts and copyrights, corporations and war crimes, golf and tennis. The Cohens are wildly impractical intellectuals, including a biologist who has studied why scorpions glow in the dark; a social activist who always needs rescuing; and a historian of the cooking of ancient Babylonian who is trying, while hosting the dinner party, to figure out whether Time is really shaped like baklava.
The novel begins with the Cohens brewing morning coffee and considering the work they will have to do to prepare their house and gardens for the dinner, and it ends, late that very night, after a complicated series of fiascoes and miracles. Over the course of the day, it becomes clear that neither family is more eccentric than the other.
Featuring an ensemble cast of exceptionally vivid characters ranging in age from three to the early nineties, Grace Dane Mazur’s wonderfully lyrical novel is an irresistible portrayal of miscommunication, secrets, and the power of love.
I initially picked up this book because I was drawn by the gorgeous cover. Once I read the blurb, I was hooked and ready to crack the cover. I loved the idea of the story playing out over a summer evening with so many differing characters as players. Therein lies the charm and the problem. There are twenty-four people at the garden party, plus a cook and a butler. The author manages to juggle all of these personalities with skill. But although we get glimpses beneath the surface of each, the reader never experiences a deeper connection. Some appear as nothing more than sketches. Each, however—including the children—have a quirk or two that makes for a gathering of eccentrics.
Written in omniscient point-of-view, the book is divided into sections (Arrivals, Drinks, Dinner in the Garden, etc), rather than chapters. I was halfway through the second part before taking note of the structure as the story sucked me under from page one. It’s not a long book, just over 200 pages. Most of the scenes move rapidly but others are dense. I found much of the writing exquisite, appreciating the lyricism of descriptions and unique turns of phrase. Note this example:
Pindar had always felt that there was something fleeting about his daughter, even at twenty-four, as though she were a delicate contraption made of feathers and rubber bands and sails.
The stairs in the front hall creak as oaken floorboards talk to nails. Walls shift as the day’s warmth rushes out and coolness from the garden flows in to take its place. Couches exhale. In the attic, objects made of suede and velvet stir.
I finished the book in two days, finding myself reluctant to set it aside when other matters called. Were it not for the closing section/chapter this would be a five-star read for me. But all the build-up, all the shuffling of players and personalities, lives knitted together, and others undone toppled into “WTH?” in the final section. I’m not sure why the author chose to end the book as she did. Without a doubt this is a novel to generate book club discussions. I’m not sorry I spent time with the story, only sorry the ending fell flat.