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The Gardens of Kyoto: A Novel [Kindle Edition]

Kate Walbert
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Exceeding the promise of her New York Times Notable Book debut, Kate Walbert brings her prizewinning "painter's eye and poet's voice" (The Hartford Courant) to a mesmerizing story of war, romance, and grief.
I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you?
So begins Kate Walbert's beautiful and heart-breaking novel about a young woman, Ellen, coming of age in the long shadow of World War II. Forty years later she relates the events of this period, beginning with the death of her favorite cousin, Randall, with whom she had shared Easter Sundays, secrets, and, perhaps, love. In an isolated, aging Maryland farmhouse that once was a stop on the Underground Railroad, Randall had grown up among ghosts: his father, Sterling, present only in body; his mother, dead at a young age; and the apparitions of a slave family. When Ellen receives a package after Randall's death, containing his diary and a book called The Gardens of Kyoto, her bond to him is cemented, and the mysteries of his short life start to unravel.
The narrative moves back and forth between Randall's death in 1945 and the autumn six years later, when Ellen meets Lieutenant Henry Rock at a college football game on the eve of his departure for Korea. But it soon becomes apparent that Ellen's memory may be distorting reality, altered as it is by a mix of imagination and disappointment, and that the truth about Randall and Henry -- and others -- may be hidden. With lyrical, seductive prose, Walbert spins several parallel stories of the emotional damage done by war. Like the mysterious arrangements of the intricate sand, rock, and gravel gardens of Kyoto, they gracefully assemble into a single, rich mosaic.
Based on a Pushcart and O. Henry Prize-winning story, this masterful first novel establishes Walbert as a writer of astonishing elegance and power.

Editorial Reviews Review

Nothing is quite as it should be in this first novel by Kate Walbert, author of the celebrated story collection Where She Went. Set in wartime Philadelphia, the story is told by Ellen, a character inhabiting a rather complex narrative device. Namely, she's looking back on the war years, from some future vantage point, recounting her experiences to her child. This framing device allows Walbert to create a novel in which the past is neither as innocent nor as simple as the reader assumes.

Ellen, the youngest of three sisters, lives for her annual visit to see her cousin Randall. Something in his odd-duck imaginings speaks to her, and their bond is cemented by the fact that they both have red hair. (Relationships have been built on less.) Yet this portrait of Randall is shadowed by loss; we know from the first that he will be killed in the war. Small wonder that nostalgia sweetens Ellen's account of their friendship: "Sometimes, when I think about it, I see the two of us there, Randall and me, from a different perspective, as if I were Mother walking through the door to call us for supper.... One will never grow old, never age. One will never plant tomatoes, drive automobiles, go to dances. One will never drink too much and sit alone, wishing, in the dark."

Ellen tells of meeting the father of her child, of her sister's disappearance, of a friend's abortion. These are in fact the story's recurrent motifs: vanishing women, endangered children, and men permanently damaged by war. As for the titular gardens, they make but a brief appearance, in a book Randall bequests to the narrator. Yet Walbert's description of them lends an extra resonance to her themes of distance and loss, even as we discover that Ellen has been deceiving herself--and us--all along. --Claire Dederer

From Publishers Weekly

"I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you?" So begins this ethereal debut novel, a romantic, bittersweet tale set in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, by short-story writer Walbert (Where She Went), a Pushcart and O. Henry Prize-winner. Walbert's protagonist is Ellen, a shy, sensitive and somewhat lost young woman who is completely enraptured by her cousin Randall, a bookish boy with red hair just like Ellen's. As a child, Ellen sees Randall only once a year, at Easter, but she is so in love with him that her infatuation affects every relationship she has in the years following his early death. After Randall is killed, his father sends Ellen a package containing Randall's diary and a book called The Gardens of Kyoto. In elegant, restrained prose, Walbert recounts how Ellen slowly pieces together Randall's life and unknowingly links it to her own, her fixation infiltrating every aspect of her existence. Even when she falls in love again, with a thoughtful young lieutenant named Henry stationed in Korea, her relationship is half make-believe: she intercepts the letters Henry writes to her friend Daphne and often finds herself picturing Henry as Randall. Walbert writes delicately on weighty themes, making a lyrical examination of the war's effect on men and women and on unrequited love. This is a haunting, thoughtful work that, without lapsing into clich‚, depicts the sad realities of love and war. (Apr. 2)Forecast: With its beautiful cover (evocative of Memoirs of a Geisha) and dreamy title, this book will do well as a selection for higher-end women's reading groups, though it may be a bit lofty for some.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1021 KB
  • Print Length: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (May 6, 2001)
  • Sold by: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000FC0OYK
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #228,036 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A sad, moving and memorable novel April 23, 2001
Like the meditation gardens in Kyoto, Japan, which is the underlying metaphor to the book (in case you couldn't guess), the story of Ellen is told with subtlety and hidden shades of meaning, which the reader is invited to visit and probe.
Ellen is presumably narrating her story to her daughter. The defining event in Ellen's life is the early, barely realized love and loss of her cousin Randall, who was killed in World War II on Iwo Jima in the Pacific. It will tragically affect and color her other relationships forever, although how, is not fully revealed to the reader immediately, but discovered along the way. While Ellen is the central character, it soon becomes apparent, through other of the book's characters, that the author has a broader message in mind than Ellen's private sorrow. Slowly, we learn how war affects and sometimes ruins the people it touches.
Randall ironically has a love of Japanese culture, particularly the treasured book Gardens of Kyoto, which he bequeathes to Ellen along with his diary. It is the first of many ironies which we are invited to discover, observe, and puzzle out, including glimpses of relationships rather than the relationships themselves. With deft strokes, Kate Walbert gives us just enough information to do just that, painting her landscape and weaving her story through flashbacks and flash forwards, often in a surreal or dreamlike fashion. At times one starts to lose a sense of time and place, reality and fantasy, although Walbert always manages to bring us back. As layers of secrets unfurl, the story keeps drawing us up until the very end.
This is an accomplished first novel, at first impression deceptively simple, but leaving the reader with remembrances of lingering sadness and loss long after it is finished.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Every once in a while, a book comes along that is so stirring in its message and so elegant in its composition that you cannot wait to tell everyone you know about it. This is one of those books. Like the real gardens of Kyoto, it is quiet, subtle, and cerebral. At the same time, it is immensely powerful in effect, full of dramatic contrasts which illuminate the bedrock of life itself. The mood is contemplative and introspective, and the reader ultimately gains new insights into the nature of human relationships.

The main character, Ellen, is a young girl during the early 1940's, fascinated by her cousin Randall, a slight, sensitive boy, a few years older, that she sees only once or twice a year. Randall expands Ellen's view of the world, showing her secret rooms in his house and inviting her to share some of his intellectual curiosity about the Underground Railroad which once stopped there. The voices of these young people, each alone in many ways, speak directly to the reader and involve him/her in both the action and the values of the times. Ellen shares Randall's fear as he leaves for the World War II, where, we have discovered in the opening sentence, he is killed on Iwo Jima. He leaves Ellen a box of "treasures," including his diary and his copy of The Gardens of Kyoto, a book given to him by his mother. As the diary and book reveal Randall's family history, we also learn about Ellen's family, the relationships of the parents, their relationships with each other, Ellen's relationships with each of them, and her relationship with the father of the child to whom she is leaving the written record which constitutes this novel.

The plot is full and rich with many overlaps of time and detail as the narrative shifts from pre-World War II to Korea.
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49 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very original, poignant . . . May 31, 2001
Rather than reading this book, I may have absorbed it! "The Gardens of Kyoto" is unique in plot and characterization. The tone is almost gothic, with a wonderful sense of place, as Walbert explores the cycle of lost love -- damaged men and the women who love them -- caused by war.
Serious and studious Ellen falls in love with her cousin Randall, only son born to an influential judge late in his life. A lonely boy with a passion for vocabulary words, reading encyclopedias and seeing ghosts, Randall reveals his real self to Ellen, trusting her with his secrets. Raised by a woman he later learns is not his mother in a rambling farmhouse once used by the Underground Railroad to harbor escaped slaves, Randall is sent to Okinawa after WWII and dies under circumstances equally as mysterious as the rest of his life. He bequeaths Ellen his private journal and a book about the gardens of Kyoto, Japan. The book figures prominently throughout the story, the book's subject matter a haunting symbol of life.
Years later, as a college student, Ellen meets a young soldier, Lt. Henry Rock. Henry falls for Ellen's troubled and indifferent friend, Daphne, and begins a correspondence. Intending the letters for Daphne, Ellen is the one who receives them and falls in love with the writer. After the war, Henry finds Ellen and begins an ill-fated relationship.
The book spans the 1940's and 1950's, through World War II and the Korean War. In the book, the men who survive the wars, Roger, Ellen's brother-in-law, and Henry are "damaged", so affected by their experience that they are changed forever, unreachable by those who love them.
Chapter 11 of book 5 quotes Iago, "'I am not what I am ....' We are none of us who we are.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Fragments in Relation
The Gardens of Kyoto are not green. They are 15 rocks at rest on a bed of raked sand meant to be viewed from different angles so that the viewer can see, ''their fragments in... Read more
Published 9 days ago by Limelite
5.0 out of 5 stars Images of Powerful Memories
Warbert conveys the power of familial friendship with her narrator's reflections on how her male cousin remained a powerful influence in her life, even after his death in WWII. Read more
Published 17 days ago by Papa Frank
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 25 days ago by James A. Larson
3.0 out of 5 stars Too much changing of time and place which interrupts flow ...
Too much changing of time and place which interrupts flow of thought and action of characters. Sometimes hard to
follow what is happening and to whom but Walbert does create... Read more
Published 28 days ago by e-jene
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Published 28 days ago by Juanita L. Frye
5.0 out of 5 stars A Gem of a Book
How did I not know about this little gem? The Gardens of Kyoto is an eloquent book and in important ways, a ghost story of those who have touched the lives of those who are left... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Jill I. Shtulman
5.0 out of 5 stars Trust
This is one of those extraordinary novels where, from the very first page, you find yourself just trusting the author. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Roger Brunyate
5.0 out of 5 stars The Home Front...
The title entices, certainly for me. This is Kate Walbert's first novel, and among the numerous disparate themes, which I felt she did a superb job of weaving together, there is... Read more
Published on March 1, 2013 by John P. Jones III
3.0 out of 5 stars Confusing
Book was hard to follow between the different time periods. Not sure who or when characters changed in chapters. Title of book was misleading.
Published on December 19, 2012 by Suzie Darling
1.0 out of 5 stars Boring and confusing
I gave up after 30%of the book. Even after reading 30% I can not tell you what the book was about. It made no sense to me at all................boring and confusing. Read more
Published on October 9, 2012 by Dale
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More About the Author

Kate Walbert is the author of Where She Went, a New York Times Notable Book of 1998; The Gardens of Kyoto, winner of the Connecticut Book Award for fiction in 2002; and Our Kind, finalist for the National Book Award in 2004. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and numerous other publications. She lives in New York City and Connecticut with her family.

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