The wonder garden

Lauren Acampora

Book - 2015

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New York : Grove Press [2015]
Main Author
Lauren Acampora (author)
First edition
Physical Description
354 pages ; 22 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

EDITH WHARTON'S FIRST published book was a nonfiction work called "The Decoration of Houses." In it, she wrote that "the essence of a style lies not in its use of ornament, but in its handling of proportion. Structure conditions ornament, not ornament structure." She was arguing that home décor and architecture had to be linked, that content must be connected to form: an aesthetic theory that could just as easily apply to writing. I thought of Wharton when reading Lauren Acampora's stylish debut collection of linked stories, "The Wonder Garden," and not just because her characters - WASPy, upper-middle-class residents of a town called Old Cranbury - are contemporary descendants of Wharton's own. Like Wharton, Acampora seems to understand fiction as a kind of elegant design. As characters reappear in one story after another, Acampora reveals herself as a careful architect, gradually building a group portrait of a place that is financially comfortable but otherwise ill at ease. It is a place of evasions and ambivalence, "this softest pocket of the continent, this deepest pouch of forgetfulness." Many of the stories revolve around houses - their renovation, preservation, decoration and sale. The opening story, "Ground Fault," follows a grouchy home inspector as he meets a couple just out from New York City, looking to buy their first house. It's a static story, not really indicative of Acampora's flair, and I personally wouldn't have put it first; but as I read further I came to understand that its theme - the importance of a stranger's judgment of a new home - lays a foundation for the collection as a whole. The house as the locus of suburban identity and anxiety is more than just a motif in "The Wonder Garden"; it's a structuring principle and focus of the characters' lives. As in Wharton's world, the jeopardy in these stories comes almost entirely from within. These are characters with "Mad Men" levels of insulation from the rest of social experience, protected from want. They're aware of their town's gentility and connected to its history, like the "ageless capripanted blondes who populate the town and who seem to have dwelled here, with their headbands and quilted bags, since its founding by the Pilgrims." Despite their affluence, they are often driven to self-sabotage out of jealousy, pride, restlessness or paranoia. The disquiet that lies beneath a well-manicured facade is a familiar idea, and these stories don't attempt to reinvent it. Neither does Acampora seem especially interested in interrogating notions of privilege. The stories are more about how aspirations to perfection can take over a life, and the impossibility of erecting what one character calls, enviously, an "irreproachable house." One of my favorite stories in the collection, "The Virginals," follows a couple of historical re-enactors - the husband reproduces 18th-century chairs, while the wife hand-sews death's-head buttons (a creepy and fascinating term I'm grateful to have learned) - as they push away the trappings of the contemporary world. At dinner, their daughter, a college student, announces she's going to study colonial African history and introduces them to the concept of cultural hegemony, by which they are horrified. This darkly funny story presents attachment to history as a kind of sickness, as well as pinpointing an obsession with purity that runs through much of American life. Old Cranbury is not just a bastion of privilege; it is a latter-day city upon the hill. In "Swarm," a similar obsession grips the life of an aging artist who constructs an installation of sculpted insects all over the exterior of a house. (Wharton would not have approved.) Having begun the project, he cannot bring himself to give it up, despite the cost to his family and the neighborhood's angry reaction. Later, in another story, the art project has been dismantled and the insects are selling briskly at an antiques store, proving that eccentricities are permissible once reduced to accessories - souvenirs of foibles that have moved safely into history. Other forms of eccentricity also succeed in charming the town; an ad executive who decides to become a New Age healer is not mocked but welcomed, ascending the social ladder as he soothes nameless ills. Not all the characters are so unusual, and some feel overly familiar. Fathers are absent; mothers are oppressed by their burdens; children are estranged. Urban exiles long for the glamour of their past lives, wondering what became of their younger, more adventurous selves. If there are service workers in Old Cranbury, their stories are not told here. YET "THE WONDER GARDEN" often accomplishes great depth of characterization, in no small part because Acampora doesn't shy from the unpalatable. One woman refers to a child's Hinduism as a "yoke of archaic, superstitious beliefs." A wealthy businessman who pays for the privilege of observing his wife's brain during surgery finds it "far too complex a thing to be inside" her. There is a barbed honesty to the stories that brushes up against Acampora's lovely prose to interesting effect. Often a single sentence twists sinuously, charged with positive and negative electricity. In "Floortime," for example, a fashion designer, reflecting on her previous season's work, "has grown to hate it with the acid repulsion reserved for things most recently loved." There are many such sentences in "The Wonder Garden," and their supple energy keeps the stories moving forward, even as the characters languish in place in Old Cranbury, railing against the comforts of their homes. ALIX OHLIN is the author, most recently, of the novel "Inside" and the story collection "Signs and Wonders."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 7, 2015]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In these linked stories, all set in the pristine Connecticut suburb of Old Cranbury, Acampora wields prose with the precision of a scalpel, insightfully dissecting people's desperate emotions and most cherished hopes. A home inspector undergoing a bitter divorce tries to dissuade a couple from buying their dream home, unable to bear the sight of their optimism about the future. A disturbed businessman becomes obsessed with the idea of viewing his wife's brain surgery while inside the operating room. A young, pregnant wife cannot believe the advertising executive that she married now wants to chuck his career and heed the call of his spirit animal. Acampora not only meticulously conveys the allure of an outwardly paradisiacal suburban community, with its perfectly restored Victorian homes and well-tended lawns; she also clearly captures the inner turmoil of its residents, homing in on their darkest impulses and beliefs. Some of the stories' starring characters make cameos in others, adding considerable complexity to the whole. Like Evan S. Connell in his iconic novels, Mrs. Bridge (1958) and Mr. Bridge (1969), Acampora brilliantly captures the heartaches and delusions of American suburbanites.--Wilkinson, Joanne Copyright 2015 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Acampora's debut creates a portrait of a fictional upscale Connecticut suburb, Old Cranbury, through a series of linked stories that are intelligent, unnerving, and very often strange. In "The Umbrella Bird," a woman eases into her new life as a housewife in a stuffy neighborhood only for her husband to trade his lucrative job for a career as a spiritual healer. In "The Virginals," a woman obsessed with the town's early American history resorts to criminal measures to preserve it. The book's best entry, "Afterglow," centers on a wealthy businessman who pays off a doctor in order to gain a troublingly intimate glimpse of his wife's anatomy. In each story, Acampora examines the tensions, longings, and mild lunacies underlying the "beady-eyed mommy culture" and sociopolitical "forgetfulness" marking Old Cranbury. At the same time, Acampora's picture of the town-rendered in crisp prose and drawing on extensive architectural detail-is as irresistible as it is disturbing. At one point, a resident of Old Cranbury feels as though "the air of this beautiful place... has begun to sear his individual cilia." Agent: Bill Clegg, the Clegg Agency. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

The dark underside of picture-perfect suburban life is familiar territory in American fiction, but Acampora brings fresh insight to the theme in this debut collection, offering short stories that connect various residents in an upscale Connecticut town. Their problems are not new (infidelity, failed marriages, kids on drugs), but these suburbanites have enough quirks and stories intriguing enough to keep readers turning the pages. -Acampora's characters seem compelled to leave the straight and narrow to walk a darker, more twisted path. One guy walks out on his corporate job to become a New Age shaman/healer, leaving his wife stunned. A historic preservationist is determined to prove that you can live in the past if you try hard enough. A distinguished neurosurgeon slides into alarming paranoia. Parents are clueless about what their children are up to. Characters either find cherished illusions shattered or cling blindly to their delusions. VERDICT The stories in -Acampora's first collection are so vivid, tightly plotted, and expertly woven that they make you look forward to reading more by this accomplished author. [See Prepub Alert, 11/10/14.]-Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

The odd interior lives of suburban Connecticut residents are unceremoniously unearthed in the interwoven stories of Acampora's debut.On the surface, Old Cranbury is just another New England town: picturesque, soaked in history, full of unspoken class divides, and populated with people who have abandoned New York City for, presumably, greener pastures. But beneath its exterior are wishes, dreams, and choices as grotesque as anything out of Winesburg, Ohio, and Acampora paints the town's web of relationships with lucid, unsettling prose. In "Afterglow," a wealthy businessman becomes obsessed with touching a human brain in the wake of his wife's tumor diagnosis. A pregnant newlywed watches helplessly as her husband becomes convinced he's being poisoned by technology and abandons his livelihood to take up New-Age medicine in "The Umbrella Bird." An aging gay couple struggles with the yawning gulf between them in "Elevations." In "Moon Roof," a real estate agent stops her car at an intersection on her way home and cannot bring herself to continue as the minutes and hours inch by. In "Swarm," a retired teacher is given the chance to realize his artistic dreams when a couple commissions him for an ambitious installation project: giant insects obscuring every wall of their home. "If it is possible," he wonders, marveling at his good fortune, "that a boy who sucked licorice on the sidewalks of Flatbush could be a millionaire nowthen the world is a spooky and fabulous place indeed." Acampora's world is exactly this: spooky and fabulous. There are expected beatsaffairs, teenage mischief, ennui, unhappy marriagesbut woven through them are bizarre set pieces, unnerving hungers, and such weirdly specific desires it's as if the author rifled through a local therapist's filing cabinet. A cleareyed lens into the strange, human wants of upper-class suburbia. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.