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The Forbidden Garden: A Novel

I love The Forbidden Garden, Ellen Herrick’s just out second novel about a young woman with an innate gift for hands-on healing gardens, plants and lives. Everything about the book is right on – the horticultural nuances and the lean yet richly sensuous writing are perfect. The plot is intriguing and magical, and the characters enchanting and at the end of its 360 pages I wanted more.

The Forbidden Garden tells the tale of Sorrel Sparrow, a young plantswoman who lives with her two sisters at their home and nursery in Granite Point, Massachusetts. Sorrel is beckoned to Kirkwood Hall, the country home of Sir Graham Kirkwood and his wife Stella in Wiltshire, England, to rescue a walled Shakespeare garden decimated by decades of tragedy and neglect. The dying garden brings its ill fate to all who try to save it, but with help from an old gardener of kindred spirit and a battery of new British friends, Sorrel finds hope, healing and new life.

The perfection of The Forbidden Garden made me wonder who IS this novelist Ellen Herrick, that she nails every fragrance, every texture, habit, culture and mix of plants that once grew in the Kirkwood’s Shakespeare garden? Not to mention the medicinal spectrum of plants?

Well, once upon a time she was Vice President and Director of Publicity for Warner Books, once Hachette, now Grand Central Publishing. She’s also a life-long gardener (“I am a gardener, self-taught. My mother was a gardener.”) and mother who whimsically promised her daughter she’d write a novel – and she did – her first was The Sparrow Sisters.

Sorrel Sparrow (The Forbidden Garden heroine) and her sisters, Nettie and Patience, debuted in The Sparrow Sisters for which Herick researched ancient books on homeopathy and soaked up knowledge of docents at museums and gardens, especially the good ones at London’s walled Chelsea Physic Garden. While in England and homesick for New England, she placed the novel in Granite Point (Cape Cod in disguise), home of the Sparrow Sisters.

Back in New England 16 years later, she became homesick for England and wrote The Forbidden Garden. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll go for a visit in my head.’ I did take a trip to Wiltshire. It’s some of the prettiest country you’ll ever see. It really stayed with me. It is so ancient – the ground there. There are so many layers of story in the ground there. I find that fascinating. England and New England are so intertwined in their attitudes.”

For The Forbidden Garden,Herrick gained information on Shakespeare gardens from websites, good books and knowledgeable docents. Having spent time in North Carolina, she knew that spring occurs the same time as in England, which helped with horticultural aspects. One could say “The Forbidden Garden is based on a true story – the story of gardens.

“Peonies, roses, dahlias, sweet peas… What better subject to be sucked into than gardening? I love gardens so much. I have an acute sense of smell. I interpret so many things through smell. If I smell privet, I go right back to riding my bike along the beach at eleven.”

The sensitivity and perceptivity of the gardeners in the book is emotional and spiritual, such as Sorrel gently touching and passing her hand over the foliage of every single plant before it went into the ground. Says Herrick: “We’re very tactile, we gardeners, with a spiritual connection between human, nature and growing things. As gardeners we grow up out of that soil too. We shove stuff into this dark, deep hole and wait and hope. It is a connection to the earth that people who don’t garden are missing it. It’s really hard to litter if you’re a gardener.

“What I love about gardeners is we don’t care about what people think of us or how we look. We care about making beauty outside of ourselves. Gardeners don’t have ego. It’s never about us. It’s always about gardens.”

Herrick’s advice to writers: “I like to be carried away when I’m writing. Write the book you want to read. I start every writing session with ‘Once upon a time.’ It’s the perfect time. It’s like saying to someone, ‘Come sit by me. I want to tell you a story.’” Currently, Herrick is working on a third novel about Nettie, the third Sparrow sister.

“I want people to come away with a feeling of having been there, out of themselves completely, to have gone somewhere else. I want them to learn something by accident, to feel that when the garden fails it’s a tragedy and when it recovers it seems joyful.

“I want people to feel something that just takes you out of your life, that you stepped through a gate to someplace else completely. I want you already with me – gone through the gate.”

Maybe when the peonies, roses, then dahlias bloom, maybe we can channel some of Sorrel’s spirituality to our own gardens.

The Forbidden Garden is a spiritual who-done-it. I LOVE this book. Do yourself a favor: Buy it, and devour it.

Check out Ellen Herrick: www.ellenherrick.com

A Few of Ellen Herrick’s Favorite References:
Shakespeare in the Garden by Mick Hales
The Writer's Garden: How Gardens Inspired our Best-loved Authors by Bennett, Jackie, Hanson, Richard
Shakespeare’s Gardens by Bennett, Jackie, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Lawson, Andrew
Virginia Woolf’s Garden by Zoob, Caroline
The Medicinal Gardening Handbook: A Complete Guide to Growing, Harvesting, and Using Healing Herbs by Cummings, Dede, Holmes, Alyssa, Fahs, Barbara
Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden by Sackville-West, Vita, Raven, Sarah
Jekka's Complete Herb Book by Jekka McVicar
The Chelsea Physic Garden: http://chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/

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