By Leslie Lindsay
A dark, haunting and atmospheric read about memory and twisted family dynamics set amidst luxury.
~WEDNESDAYS WITH WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
I’ve read all of Alexandra Burt’s stunning books and when SHADOW GARDEN (Berkley, July 2020) came to my attention, I knew I had to get my hands on it. This is such a haunting read that feels claustrophobic and uncomfortable at every turn. Burt is absolutely gifted at atmospheric prose, psychological detail, gorgeous turns-of-phrase, and generally giving readers dark intrigue.
Here’s the quick take: Donna Pryor has lived a life of luxury, being a ‘lady of leisure.’ Her husband is a successful plastic surgeon. Her only daughter is grown, she has a housekeeper who caters to every whim. She lives in a gated complex, her home is beautifully decorated. But. Something’s off.
Donna is recovering from a recent hip surgery. Her memory isn’t what it used to be. Her daughter never calls. She and her husband are estranged. Her only companions seem to be the caregivers and housekeepers who manage her luxury neighborhood.
What’s going on?
Immediately, I was swept away with Burt’s evocative prose. Her details are perceptive, she’s psychologically astute. There’s a tender slip of unease and discomfort on every page. I was definitely puzzling things out as I read and this is exactly the kind of reading I enjoy. SHADOW GARDEN is a slow-burn literary thriller, so if you’re expecting something whip-fast, this isn’t exactly it, though the last quarter flies by and you will find the entire book intense and chilling.
There are plenty of twists and turns, several gasp-out-loud moments, and visceral reactions that will leave you reeling.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Alexandra Burt back to the author interview series.
Alexandra—wow! This story! It’s eerily beautiful. The prose, that is. The setting. Underneath all of that, it’s dark, disturbing. What was your motivating force behind SHADOW GARDEN? What were you seeking to explore?
SHADOW GARDEN started out as a thought experiment. I was wondering about all the complicated ways money and wealth sway morals and I felt the urge to explore the notion of moral corruption. Do people of wealth, power, and affluence deploy a different set of principles? We know money impacts our sense of morality, our relationships with others, and our mental health, but is it true that the more you have to lose, the harder you fight to keep it, whatever ‘it’ may be? Money, reputation, a standing in the community? Is being rich inherently immoral and if so, what are the consequences?
SHADOW GARDEN’S initial title was “The Many Incarnations of Donna Pryor” and I mention it because the book had quite a few incarnations itself. It started out as detective novel purely comprised of interviews between Donna Pryor and a detective, it then turned into a family saga spanning decades before and after the crime occurred. Eventually it arrived at SHADOW GARDEN, an estate at the end of a rural road and a life of privilege that begins to crumble. I imagined Donna Pryor, a woman of humble beginnings, who waits for her daughter and estranged husband to contact her, wondering what happened to her perfect family. She has everything and wants for nothing but the truth. From there I allowed the story to unfold organically and I sat by and watched them get to the truth of who The Pryors really are. And I watched them fall.
“SHADOW GARDEN is a beautifully haunting novel about an outwardly successful but privately troubled family. I was gripped from the start, entranced by the evocative writing and the complex characters. It’s the sort of story that stays with you, long after you’ve reached the final page and closed the book.”
~Emma Rous, USA Today Bestselling author of The Au Pair
I’m always into houses and homes, architecture and design, and these elements play a major role in SHADOW GARDEN. Did you see the Pryors’ physical setting as a type of character here? Did the setting influence their responses to the events in their lives? Can you give a visual of how you saw the family home—Hawthorne Court? Would the story be any different if they were, say, not wealthy and lived in a more modest home?
Hawthorne Court is a Tudor mansion on a large property, a mansion among many mansions. I imagined a winding road with trees on either side like a devout welcome committee, and people driving by wondering who lives in such a beautiful place. I imagined onlookers stopping by the side of the road pulling over, standing in a patch of gravel, picturing the kind of people living within those walls, adoring the Tudor and its architectural design details, its exquisite landscaping. For the people looking in it would seem like a dream come true but for the Pryors, it is about to turn into a nightmare.
Donna never named Hawthorne Court, it ‘came that way,’ if you will. The house is her take of a place where nothing bad happens, how could it, it being so beautiful and majestic, right? Donna feels grounded there, as if she has arrived where she belongs and she doesn’t want to give it up under any circumstances. The story itself begins at Shadow Garden, a luxury apartment community, so something has happened that took Hawthorne Court from Donna and that’s what the novel is all about—the Pryors’ fall from grace.
There is a psychological concept called loss aversion, a corner stone of the “Prospect Theory.” It’s an economical theory but we might as well apply it: in general humans are more keenly aware of losses than gains, mainly because they have a difficult time coping with outcomes that don’t line up with their expectations. If the Pryors were not wealthy would the story be any different? Did wealth play a role or can this kind of tragedy befall any of us? Those are the questions I pose to the reader: do you feel empathy or do keep yourself at a safe distance watching them implode, kind of snickering about what has befallen them? As much as I want the reader to think of culpability, I also want empathy to play into the story.
SHADOW GARDEN is told from the POV of three individuals—Mrs. Donna Pryor, Dr. Edward Pryor and their daughter, Penelope Pryor. I found them all multifaceted, fully-formed, psychologically broken…is there one you connected with more? A character you found exciting to write? One who may have been more of a challenge?
Donna has the majority of the real estate throughout the novel. She is also the only character who is relaying the story in the first person so I’m in her head quite a bit. As a character, she is intimate and flawed and propels the plot forward. One might say that she carries the majority of the culpability but the Pryors are more than one person. They all play off of each other, they are the fabric that is their family but the stitches just won’t hold, for none of them. Penelope is the crux of the downfall, because after all, if a child goes wrong, look at the family, right? Of course it’s not that easy, that would be simplifying the threads that make up their family dynamic. I have to admit that my favorite character was Edward. He is after all the leader of the family and though he tried to do right by everyone, in the end—and this isn’t a spoiler—not only he, but the entire family, is consumed in one way or another. To answer your question, Edward was definitely the most fun to write. I’m using fun here loosely, knowing the outcome.
Did any person or place serve as a real life influence for you while you wrote SHADOW GARDEN?
The influences were plentiful leading up to the completion of the novel. While writing the final draft of SHADOW GARDEN, for a duration of about six months, I lived in four different places. We sold the house we’d owned for fifteen years and we expected to move into our new house that was under construction. Long story short, the completion was delayed by months and we found ourselves with no place to live. With two large dogs, one of them arthritic and suffering from dementia, we decided to move into a hotel. It sounded good in theory—breakfast buffet, a pool, a gym, and a park close by to walk the dogs—but it wasn’t anything close to a vacation. A week here or there living out of a suitcase is fun, but weeks on end took a toll. I had everything I needed, someone to make my bed and wash my towels, but I didn’t have so many things my happiness was attached to: my books, my office, my backyard. When it became apparent that it would take months for the new house to be completed, I found an apartment with a short-term lease that allowed large-breed dogs. With all our belongings in storage, we moved into an unfurnished apartment where we’d end up celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. We purchased blow-up mattresses and lawn chairs, linen and a few dishes. I borrowed a folding card table and a chair so I could write.
Donna Pryor tells us of a ranch-style home she has left behind, in Florida, with a “crooked fire hydrant in the front yard and a small square patch of grass. Every time the air conditioner kicked in, the lights flickered on trembling currents due to faulty wiring. We were able to afford the house because the interior was dated and overhead power lines cut through the backyard, mere feet away from the porch. Metal towers loomed above us and I often wondered if it was safe to live there.” That house felt like the home I had left behind. Eventually, Donna ends up in a Tudor mansion named Hawthorne Court by a previous owner, where she raises her daughter Penelope.
There’s Hawthorne Court and Shadow Garden and there’s something mysterious and telling about the names people choose for their homes and estates. Hawthorne Court came with the name when Donna and her family moved in, and though naming houses is an old British custom reserved for manors, halls and castles, it was a match made in heaven. A hawthorn tree holds balance and duality, full of contradictions, none of which will go unnoticed as the story unfolds. Donna loved Hawthorne Court the moment she laid eyes on the property. The mansion sits “in silent repose with precision landscaping, perfect proportions of shrubs, and mulch surrounded by lush green grass.” Eventually, after a mysterious dark period, she moves to Shadow Garden, and that’s where the story begins.
Shadow Garden “sits on a majestic estate of almost forty acres of hiking trails tucked away in the countryside at the end of a rural road. To call the estate a garden, even in a remote sense, is an understatement:
“The grounds are a burst of potted plants, bushes, shrubberies, and trees shading the paved walkways. Crape myrtles rise between the buildings, slender, with sinewy, fluted stems and mottled branches and bark that sheds like snakeskin.”
It reminded me of the unfurnished apartment, after all, I sat by the window writing, day after day, looking out at the crape myrtles reaching upward of thirty feet between the buildings—by the way such a distorted representation of a tree, more like a giant blooming shrub, really. Donna has many opinions but one predominant belief of hers is the dedication to the pruning of and caring for trees so they grow big and tall, a metaphor for her daughter Penelope’s upbringing. But she’ll tell you more about that in the book.
During the months of moving from one house to the other with the hotel and apartment stop in between, it felt a kinship with Donna Pryor. Working on the final draft, I felt in flux, on one hand mourning for the house in which my daughter grew up and on the other hand longing to be firmly rooted in a place again. All those circumstances and places were juxtaposed with Donna’s attempt to create a safe haven for her family and were in large a real life influence to get into her head.
Ultimately SHADOW GARDEN is about family dynamics and dysfunction, a troubled daughter, a strained mother-daughter relationship, and what parents will do to protect their children–even grown ones. Would you say that’s true? Is there something maybe I’m missing?
Apart from that question—what will parents do to protect their children—there’s another aspect that I connected with strongly:
do we risk more if there’s more to lose?
The higher the stakes, the more we wager? There are decisions we make in the moment—and there are plenty in the book made by all members of the Pryor family—but what about the carefully weighted choices and judgments we make over a duration of years? Are we inclined to be more protective the more is on the line and most of all, is there a point of no return? A place from which we will not recover and where do you, as a reader, draw the line, as you read the story of the Pryor family? There was so much more to unpack as I wrote and those questions that bobbed up over time are surprising and thought provoking. I hope the reader feels that way, too.
Alexandra, this has been so insightful and fascinating. Thank you for taking the time to chat about SHADOW GARDEN. Is there anything I should have asked about, but may have forgotten? What’s next…your influences…what you’re obsessing over…something else?
I’m fascinated—and yes, maybe obsessed is the right word—with merging genres and I’ve been eyeing the horror genre at least with one eye. It feels timely, given how this year has unfolded so far, dire in so many ways, and my love for books and reading and writing stories has been keeping me somewhat sane. We all are at a crossroads and no one knows how the world will unfold in the months to come and as frightening as this is, it is also freeing in many ways—if we allow it to be. My wish is that we emerge from this pandemic with a newfound appreciation for the world around us and that books will continue to be published, from deeply thought-provoking to roller-coaster rides and gripping thrillers and domestic suspense novels and everything in between and beyond. And I hope to be a part of that.
Artistic image of cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Join her on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook.
For more information, to connect with Alexandra Burt via social media, or to purchase a copy of SHADOW GARDEN, please visit:
Many books came to mind as I read SHADOW GARDEN–none are exactly like it, but you may find some similarities with the writing style of PAPERWASP (Lauren Acampora) meets thematic elements of THE PERFECT SON (Lauren North), the work of Jane Corry (especially MY HUSBAND’S WIFE) with touches of Janelle Brown’s WATCH ME DISAPPEAR and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW(A.J. Finn); in classics, its reminiscent of REBECCA (Daphne du Maurier) and THE YELLOW WALLPAPER (Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and also on the horror side, THE BAD SEED (William March) and BABY TEETH (Zoje Stage).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alexandra Burt is a freelance translator and the international bestselling author of Remember Mia and The Good Daughter. After years of writing classes and gluttonous reading, her short fiction appeared in fiction journals and literary reviews.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N.. Her work has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art will be featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal, and CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available late this summer. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley Publishing and used with permission. Artistic image of cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Join her on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook]