The Unfinished Garden

Barbara Claypole White
September 2012, Contemporary Romance
Mira, $14.95, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 077831412X

Grade: B
Sensuality: Subtle

From the blurb I wasn’t quite sure what type of book I was committing to read. It reads that the hero is “haunted by irrational fears and inescapable compulsions” and that his new “goal is to finally conquer the noise in his mind.” However, since I have had great luck with Mira books lately, I thought why not?

James Nealy has battled his obsessive compulsive disorder and general anxiety disorder since childhood. He has utilized every weapon in his arsenal to become a fully functional adult and not let a label define who he is. In fact, he used aspects of his OCD to become very prosperous and wealthy. But even with his proven success and years of practice using cognitive-behavioral therapy, he stills feels imprisoned by his very faulty brain. Enrolling in exposure therapy trials at Duke University seems like his last chance to control his obsessions and compulsions. After selling his company, his family farm, and his Lake Shore Drive apartment all with this goal in mind, he encounters a roadblock to his plans. Since one of his biggest fears is dirt, he devises his own exposure plan. He will hire a professional landscaper and observe him working in the soil, then gradually work up to planting his own garden. On his sixth visit to potential contractors, he meets Tilly Silverberg and immediately knows she is the one he needs.

After her losing her husband, Tilly Silverberg is content living a quiet sedate life. She has her own problem with repetition. Over and over she second guesses the medical decision and actions she took during her husband’s hospitalization. His death three years ago has dissipated any desire in her to do more than run Piedmont Perennials, her wholesale nursery, and raise her son Isaac. However, her assistant Sari keeps trying to lead her in directions she doesn’t want to go – like getting her to expand into retail or take on landscape design. Sari even set up an appointment for her with a property owner – some wealthy software designer. But Tilly told her to cancel the appointment.

Tenacious James is not about to give up when he has gotten this far and he throws a lot of money at Tilly, even telling her to name her own price. Tilly definitely could use the money since she is the sole provider for her eight year old son, but she doubts that she is up to dealing with an exacting client and she can just tell that James would be one. At a stalemate the decision is taken away with an early morning phone call, where she learns her mother has fallen, and Tilly immediately plans to fly to England to help her.

When her best friend picks her up at the airport, she is surprised by the appearance of her childhood sweetheart Sebastian. Even though their romance fell apart, his support during her father’s death endeared him to her. They both married other people and she thought they would keep in touch but it didn’t happen. She was crushed by his aloofness after David’s death, only receiving a condolence card. Still, he was her first love and in the past they made several attempts to rekindle the relationship, and she wonders if maybe this time it could work.

While she is busy with her mother, and attempting to redefine her relationship with Sebastian, James continues to call, pestering her for an answer. When he doesn’t get one, he shows up on her doorstep just as she needs a friend and a strong shoulder to lean on.

While I had a couple of problems with the book such as a coincidence involving Tilly's deceased husband and James that seems unnecessary and Issac's precociousness, my biggest qualm is about the longevity of the relationship. While it is difficult to separate the two disorders since they pretty much have a symbiotic relationship, it seemed that the biggest threat to the happily ever after is not James’ OCD but his generalized anxiety disorder. I can't say that I completely accepted that exposure therapy will completely eradicate James’ biggest fear. Which in turn kept me returning to the fact that he is deathly afraid of dirt and Tilly spends her day working in soil.

Still, the premise of the story is unique. We all have tapes that play over and over in our mind that impact our daily lives- keeping us from moving forward. Some more than others. I appreciate the risks that Ms. White took in creating a different hero and I value any book that can both entertain and educate me. Written as a labor of love - Ms. White has a son diagnosed with OCD-this allows her to knowledgeably shine the light on this illness.

If you are tired of picture perfect heroines and heroes than you will find much to enjoy here with characters that are flawed but quite likable.

-- Leigh Davis

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