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The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora

index 1.aspxThe Wonder Garden, by Lauren Acampora, is a collection of inter-connected stories set in an affluent suburb called Old Cranbury, complete with beautiful homes and tree-lined streets. Its inhabitants are well-educated and gainfully employed. They comprise the top one percent of the economic stratosphere.

Yet every Eden has its snake, whether it is in the form of infidelity, marital ennui, or illness. Everyone has a secret longing or regret. And even the most successful among us may feel unfulfilled.

Take, for example, the financial genius, Harold. Although he is brilliant in business, has the perfect home and a devoted family, he longs to be a doctor. When his wife is diagnosed with a non-malignant tumor, he bribes her doctor with a gift to the hospital of $200,000 (and a threat of malpractice) for the privilege of watching the surgery.

But Harold is not the only person to misuse power. The brain surgeon, Michael--revered as a god among men--has a double life. He lures unsuspecting women into his bed, all the while pretending to be single. It is his after-hours life-on-the-edge--until he lures the wrong woman...

Michael's wife, Rosalie, is a mother of five who juggles the schedules of her children and finds the time to host a foreign exchange student from Bangladesh. She works tirelessly and selflessly raising her family. Like Harold's wife, she thinks she knows her husband when, in fact, she knows very little.

There is Cheryl, who lives in a historic house and fiercely defends the Puritan way of life. Her husband makes 18th century chairs and she sews death's-head buttons. Cheryl is the scourge of village trustee meetings and is willing to break the law and damage property in the name of preservation. 

Then there is John. John is a home inspector who bought a dream home for himself and his wife years ago. Now his house needs repairs and his marriage has soured. While showing a young couple a house, he looks enviably at their innocence--both in the workings of a house and in their love for each other.

Another couple is Mark and Harris. Harris is older and more settled. He wants to adopt a child. Mark is chafing under the marital bonds. He wants to join the Peace Corps. The bloom has gone from their early, passionate days. And yet, watching Harris snoring in bed, the realization of what marital love  is finally dawns on Mark.

"How silent the room would be without its tumbling cadence. One day, he knows, that silence will come--they will no longer be together. Sooner or later, through his own doing or through the brute force of time, of death, it will come. There is no truth more absolute than this. Perhaps it is understandable that in days of serenity the heart seeks its own friction--whether in defense against, or in ignorance of, the ultimate blow that awaits it.

Suddenly, all else drops away--the dust and sweat of Africa, that hot squall of abstractions--and this is all that matters. This man who would have a child with him, grow old with him and say good-bye." 

The Wonder Garden is a brilliant short story collection that explores a suburb much like our own. Acampora analyzes the dynamics of family relationships and marriage with humor and empathy. But most of all, she explores the depth of longing that is in each of us--the desire to belong, the need to be loved.

If you are a fan of short stories, rich language, and strong character-centered fiction, you won't want to miss this debut collection.

Sara

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