4 out of 4 stars
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After immigrating to the U.S. in an attempt to flee dictatorship, Korean families struggled while adjusting to their new lives. Sylvia’s Garden is a historical fiction novel by Diane Yu. The story follows three families and the cultural challenges they face in Merrifield, Maryland, during the 1970s-1980s. Central to the plot is Sylvia Carter, who is gifted at both tending to her garden and cultivating relationships. As the Carters, Kims, and Jeffersons seek to provide better lives for their children, they must address issues related to Korean culture, biracial marriage, classism, and prejudice. Ultimately, their lives and struggles become intertwined in an unexpected but meaningful way.
In this character-driven plot, the author skillfully crafts the development of multiple characters and their relationships with each other. For instance, she effectively conveys conflict when the older generation expresses concern that the younger generation is adopting too many liberal views. Although the story unfolds at an unhurried pace, the writing style is focused and clear, and the editing is flawless. As the story progresses, the author includes significant historical events that occur in both the U.S. and Korea. Throughout the book, the author introduces Korean culture and vocabulary in an easy-to-understand manner that flows smoothly and never feels forced.
In fact, I particularly liked the Korean tradition exemplified in a celebration involving the three families. In hindsight, I can see that the author was gradually building toward this moment. However, it wasn't at all predictable; just as I had accepted certain circumstances, the story shifted. I won't expose any plot spoilers, but in this instance, the families set aside their differences for all of the right reasons.
Sylvia's passion for cultivating extends beyond her garden to her community. As a gardener, I would be remiss if I didn't mention how much I enjoyed the symbolism related to Sylvia's gardening; she is a cultivator of soil and souls. Based on the author's picturesque descriptions, I could imagine the beautiful garden with its pair of pink dogwoods and towering balsam fir tree. I also appreciated her accurate depictions of getting immersed in a task and losing track of time. I have a strong suspicion that the author shares her character's love of gardening.
I loved the ending and can't think of anything I disliked about the book. I am pleased to rate it 4 out of 4 stars. I recommend the book to historical fiction fans and readers who appreciate references to gardening. On the other hand, readers who prefer a fast-paced novel will probably prefer to pass on this one.
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