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The Night Garden
by Lisa Van Allen
Ballentine Books, $5.00 TPB, 323pp
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
This lovely little love story begins with Olivia working on the family farm.  She raises fruits and vegetables to sell.  Pretty innocuous, huh?  But there’s so much more going on… In the middle of a severe drought, Olivia’s farm thrives.  Her broken-down barn houses lost women.  Her father lives in a shack at the bottom of a ravine.  And in the middle of her renown garden maze is a locked door that no one enters except Olivia.

Olivia’s mother started the garden maze, saying that it held magical properties that would give a troubled person clarity and insight if they walked in it.  Under Olivia’s green thumb, the maze brings people from all over the country looking for answers.  For some particularly lost women, it becomes a haven while they wait for their answers. They are Olivia’s workforce for caring for the maze.  Her father left the house when Olivia was sixteen and moved into a shack at the bottom of a ravine.  He did this in penance for what happened to Olivia and his part in it.  Olivia, you see, is poisonous to the touch. 

It came on her gradually as a child but by the time she was adult, it was painfully obvious that any human that came in contact with her touch developed a terrible poison ivy rash; a potentially life-threatening situation for the extremely sensitive or allergic.  After a particularly frightening experience in town, Olivia swore to never leave the farm with the security of her rules:  no one can ever touch her, and no one can ever enter her private locked garden.

Into her life comes her childhood sweetheart, a man whose heart was broken when teenaged Olivia became aware of her poisonous nature and rejected him.  Sam left the town of Green Valley and traveled the world but became a broken man after a terrible plane crash.  A permanent impairment soured him on life and love and he returned to Green Valley because he just couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.  His impairment was, however, quite unique and when combined with Olivia’s touch…. well, you should read that part.

Olivia is both thrilled and terrified at Sam’s return; she never stopped loving him.  And when he determinedly pursues her, she flees at first.  It is a romance of stops and starts as Sam tries to demonstrate his love is true and won’t fail just because he can’t touch her.  But even Sam’s love is challenged by the secrecy of Olivia’s private garden and what it means for her condition. Other conflict develops when the local busybody takes it into her head that Olivia’s father is being abused and she pushes the local social services to investigate.

The rhythm of the plot is lovely; it felt like a gentle see-saw ride.  Or the cresting and pull of a wave.  The characterizations were well done.  The plot was sufficient and I appreciated the resolutions.  I also enjoyed the mental exercise of envisioning an existence without human touch and how one might cope with such a condition.  I was well-entertained for the price.  ~~ Catherine Book

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