Lisa Van Allen’s novel, The Night Garden, is a luminous novel of love, forgiveness, and the possibilities that arise when you open your heart.
Nestled in the bucolic town of Green Valley in upstate New York, the Pennywort farm appears ordinary, yet at its center lies : a wild maze of colorful gardens that reaches beyond the imagination. But the labyrinth has never helped Olivia Pennywort, the garden’s caretaker. She has spent her entire life on her family’s land, harboring a secret that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length. But when her childhood best friend, Sam Van Winkle, returns to the valley, Olivia begins to question her safe, isolated world and wonder: Is the garden maze that she has nurtured all of her life a safe haven or a prison?
Chock full of questions about love, family, and secrets, this novel is sure to keep your book club talking. Check out some of our suggested discussion questions to get going!
1. Olivia Pennywort has a unique condition that causes anyone she touches to develop a rash. What would you do if you had Olivia’s condition? How would you cope if you knew there was no way to get rid of it?
2. Olivia keeps her condition a secret at the risk of being perceived as a monster and driving everyone she knows away. What do you think would happen if Olivia was more open about her condition? Is she right to fear the public’s reaction?
3. Because of her condition, Olivia believes she “would be wrong to expect more of her life than what she had” (page 27). Even though she has everything she needs to survive, do you think this is an acceptable attitude? In what ways can expectations shape how you live your life?
4. At the start, Sam’s condition has stripped him of the ability to feel. If you had this condition, which sensations do you think would be the most jarring to lose?
5. When she was younger, Olivia chose not to be with Sam because she was hurting him, even though she still loved him. Did she make the right decision to break up with him? Should she have told him the truth? What would you have done?
6. Sam comes from a family of rescuers and feels pressure to be a rescuer as well. In what ways can a positive family legacy be both a blessing and a curse? To what extent should a person attempt to live up to a family legacy? What happens if this legacy comes at the expense of carving an individual path?
7. A central theme in the novel is temptation, or the idea of desperately wanting what we know may be bad for us or for others. Is there a right way to deal with temptation? In what scenarios would it be okay to give in?
8. Another core theme is the importance of touch. How important is touch and feeling for a happy life? Is it possible to find happiness without it? Do you think you could?
9. Olivia is appalled that her father knew she was becoming poisonous and did not try to stop it. What makes Arthur’s act so reprehensible? Do you think it’s possible to atone for such a destructive act? How would you go about making things right?
10. When Sam comes to rescue her out of the poisonous garden maze, Olivia realizes that “when a person could find happiness, she should seize it without question, without a single thought for the future, and with a steady resolve never to become bitter once it was lost” (page 307). Does her reasoning make sense? Is this the best way to live your life?
11. When the boarders ask Olivia what they will do without the maze, Olivia replies, “The only thing that stands in the way of your inner wisdom is your fear of it” (page 312). Do you agree with Olivia? Why do you think it’s so hard to figure out what we really want?
12. If you had a magical maze that could help you figure out what to do, what would you want it to help you with?
13. Why do you think Gloria continually tries to change the Pennywort farm? What do you think her actions suggest about how we respond to what we don’t understand?
New York Times bestselling author Anna Quindlen’s seventh novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, goes on sale in paperback next week! Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.
Read on for a Q&A between Anna and her longtime editor, Kate Medina!
Kate Medina: What does a woman want? is an age-old, supposedly unanswerable question. I think Still Life with Bread Crumbs illuminates some answers to that question. We would love your thoughts!
Anna Quindlen: Well, we could go on and on about that question, and the short snappy answer is that there are as many responses as there are women. But I do think that after a certain point, women seek authenticity. There’s an essential phoniness to the way we sometimes present ourselves, physically and socially—wearing uncomfortable clothes that someone, somewhere, has deemed fashionable, being nice to people we don’t even like. How many times has someone said to me about their much older mother, or grandmother, “You wouldn’t believe what comes out of her mouth!” Maybe that’s a response to a lifetime’s worth of so-called social graces.
KM: Still Life with Bread Crumbs is your seventh novel. You write both bestselling fiction and nonfiction. How are the processes different for you, if they are? How do you decide which one to write next?
AQ: I always mean to sound purposeful when we talk about things like that, but it’s all pretty unexamined and intuitive. My last nonfiction book, the memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, came to life with an offhand comment I’d made to my daughter and a piece of data I stumbled across when writing my last Newsweek column. I’d been very satisfied writing novels, and I had no intention of moving back into nonfiction. Right now I’m juggling a novel in its nascent stages and a nonfiction book, as you know, and the most obvious difference is that on the first, I eventually plunged right into the writing, but on the second I’m still doing the reporting. Sometimes the reporting is an excuse not to write; other times it is such an aid to composition because, unlike the material in the novels, it is in your notes or on tape and doesn’t have to be excavated from the sometimes hard rock of imagination.
Carla Buckley’s suspenseful family drama The Deepest Secret goes on sale in paperback next week! Kimberly McCreight, the New York Times bestselling author of Reconstructing Amelia, called the book “Elegant, poignant, and utterly riveting . . . a suspenseful tale of love, forgiveness, and sacrifice that will leave you asking how far a mother really should go to protect her family and wondering about the cost of the secrets we all keep, even from ourselves.”
Kimberly, who is at work on her second novel, How I Lost Her, chatted with Carla about The Deepest Secret. Read their entire conversation here!
KM: This is your third novel. How is The Deepest Secret similar to or different from The Things That Keep Us Here and Invisible? How has your writing process changed—if at all—over time?
CB: I would say that all my novels have the drumbeat of a thriller with the heartbeat of a family drama. I came to write this way almost by accident.
I’d written eight unpublished traditional mysteries when I decided to change course and tackle a question that had been haunting me for some time: how would I protect my family if the worst came to pass and the H5N1 flu strain in China turned pandemic? That story became The Things That Keep Us Here, a novel set entirely in one family’s living room as a pandemic rages around them. In my second novel, Invisible, I asked myself how much hardship a family could sustain before it broke apart. I set that story in a fictitious northern Minnesota town reeling from a deadly environmental contamination.
In some ways, The Deepest Secret is like both of my previous works. In it, I also follow a family already in crisis forced to their breaking point by a devastating event. I explore the same themes of community and moral obligation; I ask, who are we when no one’s looking—or when we think no one’s looking? But in other ways, The Deepest Secret ventures into new territory for me. There’s no global threat, no impending doom hovering overhead. I focused more sharply on a much smaller scale—eight suburban houses ranged along a cul-de-sac—and to my surprise, found my story expanding into something much bigger.
At heart, The Deepest Secret is about one boy growing up and the impact that one small life can have on so many others. It’s a story about love in all its guises and in the end, love prevails—which is the happiest ending of all.
Keep in touch with Carla on Facebook!
“Darcie Chan paints a vivid and loving portrait of the kind of small town we all wished we lived in. This layered tale of two estranged sisters brought together by a mother’s love will make you laugh, cry, cheer, hug your loved ones a little tighter. An enchanting storyteller, Chan is one of those rare authors who make you feel more fully alive.”—Elizabeth Letts, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Eighty-Dollar Champion
Lucky winners who enter our Darcie Chan giveaway will get a copy of both The Mill River Recluse as well as The Mill River Redemption! Don’t miss your chance to enter for a chance to win these two fantastic books! Enter here.
Author Lisa Van Allen’s second novel, The Night Garden, went on sale earlier this week! To celebrate, we asked her to share some of her favorite books — and if you enjoyed The Night Garden, we think you’ll be interested in her suggestions.
I’ve always had a fascination with poisonous plants. I think it started when I was a little kid and my siblings and I used to play in the woods, swinging from vines and carving forts out of thick brambles. A bush of small red berries grew “down back”; they were bright, tempting little things, but we were told under no circumstances were we allowed to eat them. We didn’t, of course. But sometimes we liked to pretend they were food, tossing them into fake salads as we provisioned ourselves for grand journeys into imaginary lands. I’m not sure that I ever stopped wondering what those berries would taste like—everything about them said, Eat me!, as if they might make a person grow very tall or very small.
As an adult, of course, a person encounters other kinds of temptations, the allure of things that we know are bad for us but that we cling to or desire anyway. The allure of poisonous plants never stopped calling to me. And so when my wonderful editor asked for my next proposal, I decided it was time to indulge in my fascination—from the safe distance of the written word!
Alas, only about half a percent of the research I did actually ended up in the story (the characters demanded most of the book’s “real estate,” and rightly so). But there’s a great, fascinating world of folklore and science surrounding poisonous plants out there, and if you’re curious, or if you’re just looking for your next read based on something that sparked your curiosity in The Night Garden, here are a few books I’d recommend.
Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne—This was the tale that started it all, twenty years ago when I first read it in high school. The story is about a beautiful and mysterious woman who flits about an enchanted Italian garden and can kill insects with her breath. “This lovely woman . . . had been nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them, that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element of life. With that rich perfume of her breath, she blasted the very air. Her love would have been poison!—her embrace death! Is not this a marvellous tale?” I loved the concept, and wanted desperately to love the story, but for various reasons, I just couldn’t. The ending got me. (You should read it, seriously. It’s short, and worth discussion). For a very long time, the story haunted me, even bothered me—I thought about it again and again over the years. The Night Garden was, I suppose, an effort to reconcile my feelings about the story as well as a chance to indulge my curiosity about poisonous plants.
The North American Guide To Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms by Nancy J. Turner and Patrick von Aderkas—I bought this book when I first started getting serious about The Night Garden, and I left it sitting on the dining room table one day when my husband got home. He picked it up, looked at me, and asked, “Is there something I should be worried about?” For many years he’s been incredibly patient on walks through the woods with me as I’m constantly stopping to either consult my various guidebooks or take pictures for future identifications. This book is a bit too big to cart into the woods, but it’s a great read for a serious-minded student of poisonous and dangerous plants.
Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart—If you’re looking for a wild, fun, fascinating, thrilling, unbelievable read about all the incredible factoids in the world of dangerous and obnoxious plants, this is your book. I adored it, front to back. It’s a brief, highly readable look at the science and stories that emerge when humans and plants collide. Oh, and apparently the author has a garden of poison plants, which just proves the adage that life is stranger than fiction.
Turn Here Sweet Corn by Atina Diffley—I read this book as one of many that I hoped would give me a glimpse into farm life. Some of my own family members were farmers, and I have childhood memories of running through the fallow fields of an old family farm that has since been sold to a developer. Atina’s book is intimate, emotionally generous, authentic, and engaging. The story of how she lost a farm to urban expansion is heartbreaking, but her family’s perseverance is an inspiration. I think of her often when I’m in the grocery store and looking at the produce section, wondering (at her prompting) why it’s the organic vegetables that get labeled, instead of the other way around. This book was a huge eye-opener and if you’re interested in farm life, the organic food movement, and environmentalism, give this a read.
The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman—One of my favorite books in recent years, this short story collection traces the life of a Massachusetts town from its frontier settlement days to the present. It’s chocked full of folklore with hints of magic—and to me, these stories feel quintessentially American. I swear, reading it fills your nose with the smells of forest soil and freshly sawn wood. This is on my keeper shelf to read again and again.
Thanks for reading The Night Garden. I would love to hear from you by email on my website (www.WriterLisaVanAllen.com) or on my Facebook page. And if your book group reads this story, please be in touch! I may be able to Skype or call in.