Apothecary’s Garden is a story about nature, but it is the nature of love.
It is also very much the story about the relevance of age.
As befitting something told from the viewpoint of a sixty-five year old Englishman, the pace at the start is slow, the writing almost tangled, like the old overgrown garden which had been choked by ivy with the narrative winding around seemingly endless consumption of cups of tea and digestive biscuits.
Unlike [b:Butterfly Hunter|16142617|Butterfly Hunter|Julie Bozza|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1352654032s/16142617.jpg|21476075] where the Australian references had hooked me from the very first page, I found this book harder to “get into.” The “Britishness” comes through loud and clear, and the attention to what I saw as foreign and mundane matters totally bemused me, making the story harder to relate to. However, I persevered and am so glad I did.
Perhaps this slow start was needed to impress on me, as a reader, the true nature of the man and the fact that this slowness was seen as admirable by the much younger Tom. The word “contentment” was seen as a virtue on a par with, if not higher than, sexual satisfaction.
Despite their age difference, there was no clash of cultures here. No violent disparity in music tastes or even ideology, and they had a shared appreciation in watching a popular TV show, Midsomer Murders.
The conflict revolved solely around the age difference.
While having more avenues for difference might have heightened the conflict, by keeping the conflict solely related to age, the spotlight was shone firmly and squarely on that issue. And it is a biggie.
I’ve seen readers aghast at stories with men in their early twenties hooking up with another guy who is only five or six years their senior, feeling that the difference in levels of sexual experience made it almost predatory. However, the big twist here is that the younger man has possibly had more hookups than the older man who is very much a product of the times, having come out in an era where homosexuality was against the law.
Here, I have to admit that the story became personal for me, as a much loved gay friend had an even greater age difference with someone he termed the “love of his life” so I was keen to see how that aspect would play out. Indeed, some of the phrases in the book eerily echoed ones I’d heard him express about his younger lover who.
“should be out there having fun, and getting up to mischief with other young people.”
But what is age? I’ve known people in real life who adopt all the trappings of each decade as they pass through the milestones. I’m forty, so now it’s time to put away the rock music and buy a twinset and pearls or, now I’m sixty, it’s time to sit in the corner with a book and make sure I conserve all my energy And now I’m seventy, I’ll see the Doctor every month for a check-up as I wait to die, spending all my time making the effort to stay alive even though I’m not doing anything with my life.
Other people see their age only defined by what it stops them from doing and they try to find workarounds to achieve the same result. Which is as it should be.
This is also a story about the value of age with a beautifully impassioned passage saying:
You’ve lived an examined life….You’ve read - and you’re always reading - and you’ve made a home for yourself. You have a sense of priorities. You know what’s important, and what isn’t….etc
Of course the physical relationship of their two bodies has to be taken into account and is done so very realistically.
I’ve seen men ten years older than Hilary who would still look good naked. They might not be so keen to flaunt it, but I would have fallen for someone who said:
You’re a handsome man, Hilary, and you look how you should look after six-and-a-half well-loved decades. There’s no shame in any of that.”
The book delves also into the opposite side of the coin, the younger man taking advantage of the older man for monetary gain. Again by bringing in the issue, dealing with it, taking it out of the equation, the book concentrates on the essence of the aspect, dealing with the age difference alone.
The book is full of lovely snippets about the nature of love
a loving relationship doesn’t have to last forever to be perfect.
In the end what matters is that they shared a
mutual sense of trust and comfort….An instinctive sense of relaxation in the company of each other.
They didn’t even have the luxury of bigoted, negative characters pushing this aspect home, forcing them to gang up together to withstand external pressure. It was totally up to the protagonists to work this out for themselves. Ultimately, it’s facing the fears within that matters more than reacting against external ones.
As a writer, now when I read other stories in the genre, I’m sometimes too analytical or even critical. After coping with critical reviews of my own work, it’s almost like these same people are reading over my shoulder, pointing out aspects they don’t like, plot elements they wouldn’t have included or thought the author shouldn’t have included. To a certain extent, I am the same. However, as a writer, I also thoroughly appreciated the quality of the writing and the way the author has dealt with a very real issue. I’m sometimes appalled at the way May/December relationships are seen by outsiders. Hilary was very right to be cautious about giving into his desires. He certainly fought them every step of the way until he was satisfied that the younger man totally appreciated the enormity of what he was getting in to and felt assured that the benefits would be mutual, even though they might be different.
Who are we to judge?
Who are we to deny others happiness just because their relationship fits outside the norm.
Over time, there have been many public figures who have married and had children with this sort of age difference. Yes, there are problems, but if it suits both parties and neither is exploiting the other, then I don’t have a problem with it.
In the end, that long build up showing the naturalness of their shared relationship was what really mattered. The garden served its purpose of bringing them together, but wasn’t the crux of the story, the murder mysteries that they watch on TV and the mystery surrounding the creator of the garden also served their purpose, but they were a red herring (or a blue herring maybe!)
The story is simply about the nature of love and the relevance of age.
At one stage, the younger protagonist proclaims:
”Sometimes people have said that I have an old soul.”
Perhaps Tom is right. It’s the age of the soul inside that matters most. And that can't and shouldn’t be measured by calendar years.