The Wonder Garden

by Lauren Acampora

(Grove/Atlantic, Inc., $24, 354 pages)

Who is this author?

Lauren Acampora’s name may not be familiar to you now, but the praise she has won for her debut story collection, The Wonder Garden, should make her very well known. Acampora grew up in Connecticut , has a degree from Brown University and now lives in Westchester County, N.Y. with her artist husband and their daughter. Her work has been published in various literary reviews, and The Wonder Garden was named an Indie Next Pick, Amazon Debut Spotlight book and Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.

What is this book about?

Acampora’s stories take us behind the prim and proper facades of a Connecticut suburban town to reveal the messy lives of those who live in the otherwise neat colonials and ranches. Old Cranbury is not exactly Stepford, but its wives and husbands suffer from disconnects between their outer lives and inner turmoil. In one story, an obsessed husband wangles permission to watch his wife’s brain surgery. In another, a husband heeds his “spirit animal” and abandons his career, much to the shock of his wife. An artist takes on a commission that turns risky; a home inspector grows resentful of the lucky young couple who have found their dream house. Many of the stories are linked and most involve old historic homes that function almost as characters themselves. Reviewers’ comparisons of Acampora’s work to that of Evan Connell, Edith Wharton and John Cheever herald the emergence of a fine new talent.

Why you’ll like it:

Lauren Acampora knows the territory: suburban Connecticut, where the homes have histories and their inhabitants have complicated lives. Local readers will feel right at home in the milieu she describes, and many may wonder what may really be going on in the clapboard-and-shutter houses in their own neighborhood. Her stories combine the familiar and the mysterious in powerful ways, giving readers a disquieting  and intriguing peek behind the curtains.

What others are saying: Review says: Lauren Acampora’s debut novel is a series of linked stories set in the affluent suburbs. The characters in one story might turn up in one farther along in the book, but each story stands on its own—taken as a complete novel, The Wonder Garden has an alchemical effect that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Working with precise language and metaphor, she peels back the suburban veneer, highlighting our wants and our weirdness, taking characters that might seem stock if you saw them in the local Whole Foods and drawing out their individual eccentricities. It is inevitable that some will generalize Acampora’s novel as dark or even weird, and some of the individual stories are; she is working in the same milieu as Cheever, examining how relationships are tested by the particular pace and expectations of suburbia, and exploring the unique individual’s relationship to a place that, on the surface, demands homogeneity. Her characters are far from normal, even if they exist in a world that seems that way. But maybe that is normal. This is a wonderful debut by a striking talent.”

In these linked stories, all set in the pristine Connecticut suburb of Old Cranbury, Acampora wields prose with the precision of a scalpel, insightfully dissecting people’s desperate emotions and most cherished hopes. A home inspector undergoing a bitter divorce tries to dissuade a couple from buying their dream home, unable to bear the sight of their optimism about the future. A disturbed businessman becomes obsessed with the idea of viewing his wife’s brain surgery while inside the operating room. A young, pregnant wife cannot believe the advertising executive that she married now wants to chuck his career and heed the call of his spirit animal. Acampora not only meticulously conveys the allure of an outwardly paradisiacal suburban community, with its perfectly restored Victorian homes and well-tended lawns; she also clearly captures the inner turmoil of its residents, homing in on their darkest impulses and beliefs. Some of the stories’ starring characters make cameos in others, adding considerable complexity to the whole. Like Evan S. Connell in his iconic novels, Mrs. Bridge (1958) and Mr. Bridge (1969), Acampora brilliantly captures the heartaches and delusions of American suburbanites, “says Booklist.

Publishers Weekly says in its starred review:  “Acampora’s debut creates a portrait of a fictional upscale Connecticut suburb, Old Cranbury, through a series of linked stories that are intelligent, unnerving, and very often strange. In “The Umbrella Bird,” a woman eases into her new life as a housewife in a stuffy neighborhood only for her husband to trade his lucrative job for a career as a spiritual healer. In “The Virginals,” a woman obsessed with the town’s early American history resorts to criminal measures to preserve it. The book’s best entry, “Afterglow,” centers on a wealthy businessman who pays off a doctor in order to gain a troublingly intimate glimpse of his wife’s anatomy. In each story, Acampora examines the tensions, longings, and mild lunacies underlying the “beady-eyed mommy culture” and sociopolitical “forgetfulness” marking Old Cranbury. At the same time, Acampora’s picture of the town—rendered in crisp prose and drawing on extensive architectural detail—is as irresistible as it is disturbing. . . “


“Acampora’s stories show that an Anna Karenina principle still applies: All happy families are the same; the unhappy ones are miserable in their own special way. Or to boil it down to modern terms: mo’ money, mo’ problems … Add well-drawn characters, interesting plots, cultural zingers and dead-on critiques of consumerism and Acampora delivers a page-turner,” says the Dallas Morning News.

The New York Times says: “I thought of Wharton when reading Lauren Acampora’s stylish debut collection of linked stories, “The Wonder Garden,” and not just because her characters — WASPy, upper-middle-class residents of a town called Old Cranbury — are contemporary descendants of Wharton’s own. Like Wharton, Acampora seems to understand fiction as a kind of elegant design. As characters reappear in one story after another, Acampora reveals herself as a careful architect, gradually building a group portrait of a place that is financially comfortable but otherwise ill at ease. It is a place of evasions and ambivalence, “this softest pocket of the continent, this deepest pouch of forgetfulness.”

Many of the stories revolve around houses — their renovation, preservation, decoration and sale. The opening story, “Ground Fault,” follows a grouchy home inspector as he meets a couple just out from New York City, looking to buy their first house. It’s a static story, not really indicative of Acampora’s flair, and I personally wouldn’t have put it first; but as I read further I came to understand that its theme — the importance of a stranger’s judgment of a new home — lays a foundation for the collection as a whole. The house as the locus of suburban identity and anxiety is more than just a motif in “The Wonder Garden”; it’s a structuring principle and focus of the characters’ lives. . . ‘

Says the Boston Globe: “Lauren Acampora’s debut collection, “The Wonder Garden,” is a weird, inspired, original collection of 13 interwoven short stories. It is reminiscent of John Cheever in its anatomizing of suburban ennui and of Ann Beattie in its bemused dissection of a colorful cast of eccentrics. But Acampora’s is entirely her own book, as it is self-consciously of its own world: Set in the fictional town of Old Cranbury, “a desirable suburb in a sterling school district, not too far from the city,” with a “historic pedigree” dating back to the Puritans. . . . Acampora is a brilliant anthropologist of the suburbs, keenly “aware of the hidden, parallel world beneath the mundane,” adept at uncovering unexpected parallels and interesting connections between ostensibly very different people. Although the situations she puts her characters in are extreme, verging on implausible, she repeatedly strikes universal chords.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “The odd interior lives of suburban Connecticut residents are unceremoniously unearthed in the interwoven stories of Acampora’s debut. On the surface, Old Cranbury is just another New England town: picturesque, soaked in history, full of unspoken class divides, and populated with people who have abandoned New York City for, presumably, greener pastures. But beneath its exterior are wishes, dreams, and choices as grotesque as anything out of Winesburg, Ohio, and Acampora paints the town’s web of relationships with lucid, unsettling prose. In “Afterglow,” a wealthy businessman becomes obsessed with touching a human brain in the wake of his wife’s tumor diagnosis. A pregnant newlywed watches helplessly as her husband becomes convinced he’s being poisoned by technology and abandons his livelihood to take up New-Age medicine in “The Umbrella Bird.” An aging gay couple struggles with the yawning gulf between them in “Elevations.” In “Moon Roof,” a real estate agent stops her car at an intersection on her way home and cannot bring herself to continue as the minutes and hours inch by. In “Swarm,” a retired teacher is given the chance to realize his artistic dreams when a couple commissions him for an ambitious installation project: giant insects obscuring every wall of their home. “If it is possible,” he wonders, marveling at his good fortune, “that a boy who sucked licorice on the sidewalks of Flatbush could be a millionaire now…then the world is a spooky and fabulous place indeed.” Acampora’s world is exactly this: spooky and fabulous. There are expected beats—affairs, teenage mischief, ennui, unhappy marriages—but woven through them are bizarre set pieces, unnerving hungers, and such weirdly specific desires it’s as if the author rifled through a local therapist’s filing cabinet.

A clear-eyed lens into the strange, human wants of upper-class suburbia.”

When is it available?

The Wonder Garden is on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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