I read this book very quickly over the course of a couple of days, and it's just SO GOOD. I don't read many short story collections, but this one is a bit different in that the stories are interconnected. Less like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge (which I liked a lot) and more like Frederick Reiken's Day For Night (which I loved). So maybe this is a novel in stories.
Anyway, author Lauren Acampora grew up in a wealthy Connecticut suburb and couldn't wait to move away for college. When circumstances demanded that she move back to her hometown, she kept her sanity by imagining the dark, inner lives of her friends and neighbors, and thus The Wonder Garden was born.
Acampora clearly has an eye for the bizarre and a taste that runs to the twisted side, and I had the feeling that I would love this book from reading the first story. The characters drop in and out, the point of view shifts for each chapter, and what the reader ends up with is a brilliant cross section of the dark underbelly of suburbia.
For example, in one story, a man is the house inspector for a young couple moving to this rarified and historic Connecticut town from New York City. The inspector turns up in a later story, as do the young couple, but now the husband has become a shaman and the wife takes a job in an antiques shop. There's a wealthy business man who bribes a brain surgeon to let him touch his wife's brain during a procedure, and all three show up one way or another in other chapters. There's the matron who is so dedicated to preserving her historical pre-revolutionary home that she can't understand why her children would rather go off to college to learn about post-colonial Africa than to stay home and learn how to make furniture by hand. One of those children in a later chapter then attends a sort of love-in where the shaman has attained guru status. A wealthy couple become patrons of an art installation that infuriates the entire town, and pieces of the installation later find themselves at an antique shop for sale.
And so on. While these myriad characters skim by on the surface, Acampora deftly exposes their secrets that writhe in the murky depths, stalking them from below. Her overall vision of suburbia is masterful, occasionally verging on brilliant. If you had David Sedaris take on the work of Edith Wharton, and if you added in a pinch of the madness from Where'd You Go Bernadette, you might have a good sense of The Wonder Garden.
I had the good fortune of meeting Lauren Acampora at Winter Institute a couple of weeks ago and attending a dinner hosted by Grove. I was so taken with her description of her book and how it came to be that I read it as soon as it arrived home -- I flew home from the conference, but the books I collected in Asheville were shipped back via slow boat. Grove Atlantic will be publishing the book in May. I happen to love the cover, which Acampora told me that her husband designed. He's a miniaturist and he created the scale model used in the photograph.