Elise Watters is a woman who appears to “have it all” — a happy marriage to handsome physician Kieran Lund, a gorgeous Victorian home that belonged to her mother and in which she grew up, and an ideal job. Elise runs her late mother’s herbal boutique, situated on the grounds of her home.
But as she returns home, planning to celebrate her first wedding anniversary with Kieran, she makes a shocking discovery that turns her life upside down. What she learns casts doubt on everything she thought she knew about her marriage, friends . . . and even herself. Elise’s idyllic life is transformed into a deceptive hall of mirrors.
As she treads into dangerous territory, Elise questions whether her whole future is at stake. Is paranoia getting the best of her? Or, considering what she has uncovered, is she right to fear for her life?
Author A.J. Banner describes The Poison Garden as “dreamlike, twisty, and atmospheric,” noting that it contains “slight elements of almost, but not quite magic realism.” Indeed, overall, the novel has a noir quality.
Set on the fictional Chinook Island, Washington, the story begins with Elise arriving home from a trip to Seattle to make a shocking discovery that rattles her to her very core. Married to the handsome and charming Kieran, a local doctor, for only a year, Elise is still grieving the loss of her mother. She has continued operating her mother’s beloved herb shop, the Clary Sage, in order to honor her. Her mother left behind journals detailing how she created medicinal teas, salves and tinctures, but Elise is a licensed pharmacist, grounded in science. So she has diversified, adding gift items to the inventory in recognition that her mother’s “intuitive approach to healing” does not come naturally to her. Her mother warned her about the power of some of the herbs she used, including a mysterious and particularly dangerous plant she named the Juliet.
Elise has attempted to distance herself from her ex-husband, Brandon, a contractor. Yet when she quarrels with Kieran and he insists that Brandon has managed to have business interests on Chinook Island in order to remain in close proximity to Elise, she finds herself wondering if there is any truth to Kieran’s jealous accusation. In fact, she soon learns that Brandon is working right next door at her neighbor and friend Chantal’s home. Chantal lives “inside” her memories of happier days. Four years ago, her teenage daughter, Jenny, died. Her death tore Chantal’s family apart. Her son relocated overseas and shows no interest in returning to the United States, and the loss took a toll on Chantal’s marriage to Bill. Now single, Chantal is lonely and visits Jenny’s grave often, leaving notes that she writes to her daughter.
Elise is plunged into a mystery that throws into question everything she thought she understood. The circumstances surrounding and timing of her mother’s death now seem suspicious. Kieran’s feelings for her and motivations for having pursued and proposed to her so soon after her mother’s death seem calculated. As she recalls details about her marriage to Brandon, she realizes she may have overlooked warning signs about his behavior and was a passive participant in his machinations.
Banner employs a first-person narrative from Elise, whose life unravels unexpectedly and at a breathtaking pace. She observes, “I still couldn’t believe what was happening. I thought I could snap my fingers, click my heels together and I would be home again, like Dorothy returning from Oz, back in the light I thought we’d shared, perfect and beautiful and full of love. I couldn’t comprehend that I’d fallen — or had almost fallen — victim . . . But now, what mattered most was what I was going to do about it.” A third-person narrative related from Chantal’s point of view, inserted at judiciously-timed intervals, heightens the suspense.
The pace of The Poison Garden is unrelenting. The story unfolds over the course of just a few days into which Banner packs significant action and surprising revelations. Elise is an unreliable narrator, given her history of sleepwalking and several instances when she is unable to recall what transpired. Every character is revealed to be duplicitous to some degree and Banner suggests various ways in which they might or might not be connected and united for nefarious purposes. Banner keeps readers guessing as to whether and to what extent Elise has been psychologically and emotionally manipulated.
The Poison Garden includes plot twists and turns that keep the story interesting and compel it forward. Those herbs play a prominent role in the story. In fact, the Juliet is almost like a character in the story — mysterious and intriguing with a complicated and secretive history. Did it figure into at least one prior death? Will it lead to more death(s)?
According to Banner, the ending of The Poison Garden “evolved.” She didn’t devise it until she was working on the fifth or sixth draft of the book. Clearly, its evolution was worth the wait because it is shocking, but satisfying.
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