The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White

Picking up from last week’s post about in praise of prettiness and gardening in general, today I’m reviewing one of my favorite books, The Unfinished Garden, by one of my favorite authors, the award-winning and bestselling author Barbara Claypole White.

The Unfinished Garden was Barbara’s debut novel, published in 2012, and I read it way back then. But the story stuck with me-the sign of a good book. Over the weekend I skimmed through it again, jotting notes about why it lingers.

This from the book’s cover: James Nealy is haunted by irrational fears and inescapable compulsions. A successful software developer, he’s thrown himself into a new goal – to finally conquer the noise in his mind. And he has a plan. He’ll confront his darkest fears and build something beautiful: a garden. When he meets Tilly Silverberg, he knows she holds the key . . . even if she doesn’t think so.

Tilly, a young widow with a son, is haunted by feelings of guilt and grief over her husband’s death.

Like a perfect storm – or the hurricane that shows up – these powerful forces drive the story from Tilly’s garden business in North Carolina to the gardens of her childhood home in England. Claypole White is an avid gardener in real life so she knows how to dig deep, knows that getting dirty is all part of a good garden. In The Unfinished Garden she doesn’t shy away from the mess mental health and raw emotion bring into our lives. It’s Barbara’s honesty that draws me to her stories.

OCD is an illness that never goes away. As James explains at one point, There’s no logic to OCD, Tilly. . . . You conquer one fear . . . another detonates in your face. There’s a viscous lump of anxiety inside me waiting to stick to anything I pass. I see mold on a tree–it’s anthrax. I hear an alarm–it’s warning of nuclear war. I look at a garden–I see cancer.

With Claypole White’s descriptive writing I immediately felt compassion for James and was caught up in his struggle against what his brain is telling him and what he knows is right. I was pulling for him to conquer that fear and create something beautiful out of it.

I was pulling for Tilly, too, or rather wanted to help pull her away from the guilt and grief she holds on to. This author understands these emotions and while guilt may be lifted, grief never truly goes away.

Claypole White balances the family drama with the beautiful landscape of an English garden. The lushness of meadows and brambles, the scents of sweet peas, roses, and nicotiana permeate the story. (I so want to travel to England!) The garden provides softness, beauty, and the safe places where an unlikely companionship can blossom.

Barbara Claypole White has written four other novels since The Unfinished Garden. She defines her writing as . . . quirky stories about troubled but courageous characters, complicated relationships, and crazy critters . . . topped off with a dollop of hope.

You can read more about Barbara and her books – including a new one in the works!

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