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The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White

This is Barbara Claypole White's debut novel.  She's a British expatriate living in the U.S. and the book takes place both in the U.S. and in England.

James Nealy is a man on a mission and barely hanging on by a fingernail.  He's a desperate man who sold everything back home in Illinois to move to North Carolina to take part in a therapy study that's become his last best hope of finally quieting his noisy mind, stilling his compulsive actions, and achieving finally some semblance of a 'normal' life with sound mental health.  To that end he has decided and become determined to create a garden in which he can work and in which he can find some relief from the noise in his disturbed mind.  To create this garden James seeks out Tilly, who owns a wholesale nursery and who is most determinedly not a landscape designer despite a very pushy assistant who tries to shove her in that direction and into James's path.

Tilly is a widowed, single mother raising her son, Isaac.  Her nursery business just meets their financial needs and her gardening has become a refuge from her grief.  Struggling with guilt in the wake of her husband's death, she is determined to shelter her son as they both continue to heal in the midst of their grief for a husband and father still sorely missed.  Tilly's adamant that she cannot take on James because she is most certainly not a trained landscaper and his own problems would simply be too much to bear.  However, James can spot a kindred spirit, one damaged by past tragedies; this is one gift his disorder has given him, and it's a kindred spirit that he senses in Tilly and it's why he believes she's the person who can help him.

When a family emergency calls Tilly home to England she happily pulls up stakes and retreats to her childhood home to care for her mother as she convalesces from several broken bones due to a fall.  Tilly arrives home to find a mother who has imperceptibly changed in the past months and about whom Tilly worries these changes might be harbingers of a much more serious illness.  Tilly soon comes to the realization that her best friend, Rowena, is keeping secrets.  To complicate matters further, Tilly's childhood sweetheart has also returned to their English village.

Sebastian, Tilly's first love, has become estranged from her in the years since both of their marriages and her move to the States, and he has now returned home amid the shambles of a wrecked marriage.  Distant since Tilly's arrival home, Tilly is just as determined to maintain this distance and keep Sebastian at arm's length.  Then James follows Tilly to England, and she reluctantly agrees to teach him how to garden and a bond of friendship begins to develop between the two.

The manifestations of James' obsessive compulsive disorder is vividly drawn without turning him into a caricature.  Instead the window we have into his fears, obsessions, anxieties and compulsions shows us a vulnerable man and makes the reader root for him--to get his OCD under control, to finally wrest some normalcy into his life, to have the family life he's wanted so long and that has eluded him because he refuses to let anyone close for fear they'll be scared away by his OCD, and to build a friendship with Tilly.

Faced with her own health crisis and her mother's life changing decision that threatens to pull the rug out from under Tilly's life, she finds comfort in gardening and an unlikely confidant and support system in James.  Tilly soon finds herself torn between her home in North Carolina and her childhood home in Woodend, between the comfort and certainty of her childhood sweetheart and the uncertainty and challenge of a new love.  Is Tilly ready to move on and with whom should she move on?

This is as much the story of Tilly's and James' struggles with the tragedy and grief of their pasts that has left each vulnerable, damaged, and afraid to let anyone else close.  This story sucks the reader in from the very first chapter and makes this an extremely difficult book to put down.  It's a page turner shot through with both humor and poignant grief as these two different yet similar people heal from their respective hurts.

I highly recommend that you pick up this book the next time you're at the library.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


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