I found out about The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora book during last month’s meeting of the Simply Books! book club at the library. The reader’s description piqued my interest (quoted from our meeting minutes):
This novel is made up of a series of linked stories set in an old-money suburb called Old Cranbury. Each story focuses on the various eccentricities of the rich and weird inhabitants. It’s elegantly written, and Acampora manages to inhabit each character fully.
The reader also went into a bit more detail about the “eccentricities”–the artist who creates realistic-looking foamboard insects to cover a house in the neighborhood as part of an art installation, the father-to-be who has a mystical experience while building a tree house that leads him to a spirit quest. I was hooked.
It’s Winesburg, Ohio for a new era. A book of grotesques, just like that one, people who strive and want and are stuck in different ways. But add the oppressive wealthy suburban aspect, the kind that demands conformity. And then there’s the creative element, humor, and deft characterizations that Acampora brings to Old Cranbury.
Acampora delivers a lot of insight about society and what it’s like to be under scrutiny in one way or another. To have your own little reality behind your windows, where you can create your own little world safe from prying eyes (like the woman in The Virginals, who, along with her husband, speaks, dresses, and decorates her period home as though it is forever 1740).
Each story blends humor and pathos, the everyday takes on a creative spin or is presented from a different angle, and the attention to detail is great. These are small, intensely focused stories (none more so than the one where a real estate agent is stuck at an intersection, and starts to see it as a welcome break), reflecting the tightly narrow focus of the characters.
The Wonder Garden is darkly funny, populated with wonderful characters, and incisive in its depiction of the needs and preoccupations of moneyed suburbia.
If you enjoy this book, I’d suggest you try Rebecca Makkai’s work. The quirkiness and pathos would be a good fit, particularly in The Hundred Year House. As the reader from book club said, John Cheever would be a good choice, too–there’s that same bleakness and dark humor, some weirdness, and focus on the lives of middle-class suburbanites. Try The Stories of John Cheever to dip a toe in. Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, about a lawyer’s wife in 1930’s Kansas City succumbing to boredom and loneliness, might be good as well, as would Sinclair Lewis’s work (Main Street or Babbitt). I already mentioned Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, which might also appeal if you like the “book of grotesques” angle. If you want to go darker and more hopeless, you could try the disturbing but poignant Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, which focuses on the sad, poor population of a small Midwestern town.