About a Boy: Minuscule Thoughts on a Book…The Unfinished Garden, Barbara Claypole White

Musings, reflection, rumination, cogitation: more of this than an actual review – because I am just not sure how I feel about the whole book really.

I discovered Barbara Claypole White’s The Unfinished Garden, whilst browsing.

It was in that nifty little section that triumphantly advises ‘people who liked your book also liked these’; meaning if YOU had the good taste to stumble upon this book, then surely you will like to purchase these OTHER books that people who may have BETTER taste then you liked too…

Although I generally find that people who had WORSE taste than me usually liked those books, I have an uncontrollable urge to trawl through them nonetheless. The heady combination of liking to live life on edge; nosiness and the eternal search for the ultimate read, like the search for the Hoy Grail, sadly, sans Harrison Ford; it pushes me ever onwards…

The whole not-sure-I-like-bit  hinged on the fact that I found James (terribly boring name, but oh-so interesting person), fascinating, even if I thought the story was awkwardly written and the rest of the characters strangely unlikeable.

BUT James kept me going – kept me intrigued and kept me wishing that Ms Claypole White had ditched the rest of the characters and given James better friends and a nicer, more considerate, way less angst-ridden love interest.

The narrative starts suddenly, and within 3 chapters we have been thrown into the tumultuous lives of our two protagonists, and at this point, I am more intrigued with James than I am with Tilly.
Tilly, widowed, with a son, a garden nursery and unidentified looming guilt for ‘something nasty’ (which may or may not be in a woodshed), seems more ephemeral and definitely less substantial than James.

James has OCD (I could describe it as crippling I suppose, but really, is there any other form of OCD but crippling???).

“No one has just OCD, Tilly. OCD likes to come with a buddy—bipolar disorder, ADHD. I told you, it’s all about pairs.”

The car whooshed past a gap in the hedgerow flanked by two massive oak trees, their trunks bandaged in ivy.

“Terrific. What’s your OCD partnered with?”

“Generalized anxiety disorder. More of the same…”

The depiction of James’ issues and life, ring so very true and realistic, that it is actually a little unfortunate, because it puts the rest of the story to shame.

James? Woah… Nelly. It has been a while since I have been immersed so quickly into a character’s internal dialogue and responses. There is this subconscious thought, twining with conscious reactions, which bump into the physical effects, which in turn leap into the obsessive compulsion of habits and then the fierce attempt to restrain these impulses that is just…a little bit mesmerising.

‘He could feel the germs mutating in the soil. Soil Tilly had transferred to him. Why, why had he shaken hands?
He grabbed one of the six bottles of Purell from the glove compartment and emptied it over his hands, shaking out every last drop. Terrific. Now his palms were sticky as well as contaminated. Cringing, he rubbed them together until they throbbed.’

I found myself slightly disappointed when it was suddenly Tilly’s POV again.

The intriguing part of this is that because I, the reader, know more about James at this point, or at least of his issues and his desperation; Tilly becomes somewhat of a baddie by not agreeing to his demands.

He NEEDS her to create him a garden. He needs it for sanity, for his own ability to control the demons lurking beneath the surface. Why can’t she just help?

‘This plan held the promise of freedom – freedom from the nightly window and door checks, freedom to sleep past the 4:30am treadmill call. Freedom to expose himself to the minefield of unallocated time. Doing nothing was akin to unrolling the welcome mat to every funky ritual his short-circuiting brain could sling at him. It was beautifully, impossibly straightforward, his plan: face his fear. And not just any fear, but the mother lode. The biggest fucking fear of all. Dirt.’

Tilly needs to get out of her matyr-like widow weeds and just help him, the stupid cow.

(I know, I wasn’t very polite to Tilly at all.)

And that was pretty much the way I felt for the rest of the book. Tilly was caught between an old love and James; Tilly didn’t want her mother to sell their old house; Tilly wasn’t sure; Tilly was too sure; Tilly was caught up with guilt; overwhelmed by grief; yada, yada, yada; Tilly, Tilly, Tilly. Blah. Blah. Blah.

There were occasions where a little sparky dialogue from Tilly would peak my interest:

“It’s 4:02. We’re going to be late to pick up your mother and Isaac. I’ve noticed you don’t wear a watch. Why?”

Tilly turned her attention back to the road, swerving to avoid a ragged line of pheasants staggering like Friday-night drunks. “Life is stressful enough. Why set a timer to it?”

“Because without one—” he inhaled loudly and then exhaled slowly “—how can you arrive where you’re meant to be when you’re meant to be there?”

Wasn’t the answer obvious? “You wing it.”

“Wing it,” he said, as if repeating a phrase in an unknown language.

“Don’t worry. Work with me long enough and you’ll figure it out. So, what else do I have to contend with, other than claustrophobia and severe punctuality? I thought you just had OCD.”


But then it would settle straight back into the banal:

“My guilt,” she said, “is the guilt of failing my family.”

“I was doing pretty well in the big scheme of guilt.” She tried to smile but it could have escaped as a grimace. “Then I found this lump, and here I am, stuck like a player in Monopoly with the do not pass go, do not collect $200 card, wondering, yet again, if my husband died because of me.”

I won’t even begin to explain how stupid ThE GuIlT premise is; I felt like it was just wedged into Tilly’s subconscious as an attempt to make her equally damaged and difficult as James. And frankly, there was already enough S*** going down with James, that any more seemed like overkill.

In addition, the narrative was so very JARRING; I can’t think of another way to describe it. There was odd placement of events; references to things that had just happened but which I hadn’t read about. A couple of times, I was flicking back through the chapters trying to find the event that had been referenced only to work out that it had happened off-page.
If something is important enough to reference in a story – then why the crap hasn’t the author written it in?

Sebastian was an idiot, Tilly’s friend (whose name I can’t remember; a ‘werewolf in a wonder bra’) also ridiculous.

But James? While I wouldn’t want him as a book boyfriend (he was one hot mess of a person), he was INTERESTING with a capital IN.

‘James’s pulse sped up, and his heart became a jackhammer pounding into his ribs. He swallowed hard and tasted panic, metallic as if his throat were lined with copper. The voice inside his head that wasn’t his own drowned out everything as it chanted over and over, “You’re going to die, die from disease in the soil.” He started rocking. Movement, he needed movement. The voice told him to twist his hair, told him if he didn’t, he would catch cancer from the soil and die. But he didn’t have to listen! This wasn’t a real thought. This was brain trash, right?

Or he could just twist his hair twice. Then twice again and twice again. Six was a wonderful number. Soft and round and calm. But rituals were cheap fixes. Compulsions only fed the OCD monster. It would return, stronger, unless he fought back.’

His ability to at once be conscious with his obsessions, with the driving forces behind his urges, while at the same time acknowledging the limitations and ultimate dangers in giving into them holds you captive. You can feel how much he wants to; the rising panic in his voice, and narration, the sway of the force as he allows himself to step into the murky waters, but almost always backing back away from it before the current manages to grab a hold.

He jokes about it, even when it breaks your heart, and you really just want him to win.

‘Don’t cave, don’t twist your hair. If you can fight for 10minutes, the urge will pass. He counted to forty and stopped. Ten Minutes? Hell, he couldn’t even make it one.’

‘Me and my fucked up shadow. James tapped his lucky watch. Tap, tap. Tap, Tap. Now he’d contaminated his watch. James sucked in a breath to the count of four. He held it for two seconds then exhaled. One two three four. Repeat James, repeat. Slow the breath and the heart and mind will follow.’

And that is ultimately what made me begrudgingly come to the Tilly party. For some strange reason, Tilly creates a space in which James feels better. He can calm down, breath and relax. Tilly, (although who even knows why), helps James; and in return, James, helps Tilly.

Together they both grow and restore a garden. Which is trite, and makes you feel like all of the worlds’ problems could be solved with a good tumble in the dirt, (hah! 🙂 ) even though I think the author was probably going for the more high brow ideal of facing your fears and restoring what was fragmented and broken…
So even though Tilly hates other people’s fears, because it means you get trapped in their world and even though James is terrified of dirt; they are MFEO  and because I liked James, even though he could have done waaay better then Tilly…?


If this book was a food? I think it would be a chocolate and beetroot brownie. Small enough portion that you don’t get queasy; bitter dark chocolate of defeat coupled with the earthy sweetness of the beetroot makes for strange, but ultimately tasty bedfellows; but you would only want a sliver – I am not running out with jazz hands screaming ‘please more beetroot-chocolate goodness’ which pretty much sums up how I feel about this book.

3.08/5 for this one. (Yes, I can use decimals, because – REASONS! 😉 )


ValancyBlu: currently mixing cogitation with cognac; now those are delightful bedfellows….


6 thoughts on “About a Boy: Minuscule Thoughts on a Book…The Unfinished Garden, Barbara Claypole White

  1. What a great review! I’m no fan of women’s fiction, the most inane literary moniker evah, really. And I KNOW I’d rather chuckle through your review than read the book … and now I don’t have to, but, man, James sounds like a great character. Why can’t “women’s fic,” you want your book designated as such, okay, fine by me, do less with less? (At least no one gets a terminal illness … ); who needs Job when you’ve got women’s fic? (Sorry for ranting all over your review.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rant away – plse! (*pulling out a soapbox for you…* :)) I totally agree! I generally steer very much clear of those patent ‘women’s fic’ as you say – they are often so overblown and grandiloquent in this I’ve-just-read-Nicholas-Sparks-and-want-to-make-my-white-bread-characters-more-tear-jerky-cos-that-is-WRITING kind of way that just IRKS me. And James was soo interesting – I thought by the end – well if that’s all the authors gonna give you to make up for all your shit…well I suppose its better than nothing…


      1. This review was so interesting, I really enjoyed it. To the point actually, where I felt I didn’t need to read the book myself. This is good, definitely the hallmark of a superior review, however, as I now comment, I’m wondering that if I had read the book myself, would I be commenting in this way. However, it seems to me that perhaps our author had something she wanted to say about OCD and James was the vehicle.
        A close family member perhaps, maybe even our author herself, who knows, but it certainly sounded authentic and the author’s portrait of James was believable. Not so much Tilly! Was she perhaps the impatient one of our author’s experience – purely conjecture here of course, but nonetheless, I do find it interesting. And I do look forward to your postings – they are always really interesting. Thank you!!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thank you! Actually you’re dead right, I went back and checked out the author and apparently, her son battles with obsessive compulsive disorder – tres interesting! The first hand observation makes for a very realistic picture I guess!


          1. Oh – that is really interesting (sorry I realise I use that word quite a lot – must check my thesaurus for something else more interesting – oh dear!)
            Now I’m wondering – how many authors use their own life experiences when writing ‘fiction’ books? Is that a useful tool for writing? Does it mean that one character is more weighted than another and how impactful is this for the reader? Or does it make one character more believable or authentic than another? But then, isn’t everything that we write about or comment on, a part of our life experience? Food for thought!


            1. Definitely food for thought! They (you know – the anonymous literatzzi) do say write to what you know – and if you’ve experienced something, you kind of are in the perfect position to go into all the ins and outs of it without having to do a whole stack of research or place-putting…ANd it would, I imagine, definitely change the strength of certain characters – which in turn is what probably makes the reader go ‘i could identify/understand that character more’
              Would it then be an editor’s role to pick up on these weakness (as I see them anyway) and have the author build into elements and characters more??? I don’t know – definitely intriguing no!!?


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