Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively

Life in the Garden
Penelope Lively
Viking, 2018

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At first glance, award-winning and beloved novelist Penelope Lively's new book Life in the Garden looks depressingly predictable: a slim hobby-memoir filled with jostling canned quotes about gardening, the kind of thing distracted novelists have been knocking together and tossing off with their left hands for centuries.

Instead of that sort of thing, Lively here has written a quiet little masterpiece, a winding, turning memoir of a long lifetime spent gardening and the intertwining of all that gardening with the reading and writing that has likewise been her life's passion. All the expected potted (no pun intended) sections are here – the garden through history, gardening tastes and peculiarities in various eras, famous gardeners and gardening manuals and gurus, gardening in literature, all the usual suspects – but they're animated by Lively's wise, slow, novelist touches in a way such book virtually never are (she mentions one such success, Jenny Uglow's A Little History of British Gardening, and then easily surpasses it). It quickly becomes obvious that this is a book that's been germinating for a long time in the seasons of this busy author's life, linking literature and life and work out in the dirt. Lively touches on gardening in Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Nancy Mitford (in The Pursuit of Love) and dozens of others, and her own family history of gardening is never far from the narrative (the mentions of her grandmother, a solidly middle-class woman who would have considered it slightly demeaning to do her own cooking but who spend hours every day working in her garden). But always there are deeper stakes, observations about all that gardening has come to mean to her over the years:

We garden for tomorrow, and thereafter. We garden in expectation, and that is why it is so invigorating. Gardening, you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backward, and forward, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next. And for me, there is this abiding astonishment at the fury for growth, at the tenacity of plant life, at the unstoppable dictation of the seasons.

This note of pressing time is struck regularly throughout this slim, utterly memorable book – it's one of the only in-text hints that the author herself is no longer young. Again and again, spading and weeding and planting and re-planting is tied to time. “Gardening, in its small way, performs a memory feat: it corrals time, pinning it to the seasons, to the gardening year, by summoning up the garden in the past, the garden to come,” she writes. “A garden is never just now; it suggests yesterday, and tomorrow; it does not allow time its steady progress.”

It goes without saying that all avid gardeners will treasure this book, but even readers who've never grown so much as a weed will love this performance too, the literary equivalent of listening to your most literate friend collect her thoughts about the most unassuming of her life's passions.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is