Into the Garden with Charles is a love story written by a man who finds love during the middle of his life after having given up his decades-long search. Resigned to spend his life alone, he purchases a small three-hundred-year-old house in Orient, Long Island after having fallen in love with the area and the community he finds there. He continues to commute between his apartment in New York City (where he still works) and his small country home on 1/3 of an acre until he gives up the apartment and moves permanently to Orient.
He begins to grow the garden he’d dreamed of having since he was a boy and works as a landscaper. He’s clearly happy to have reached this point, but he still longs to share his life with someone and is lonely.
“I began to grow around my loneliness the way a tree limb can grow through a chain-link fence, incorporating the sharp metal into its fiber without showing any outward signs of distress. I gardened my way into middle age, dog-earing nursery catalogues, circling seed packets I wanted to order, lusting after rare plants.”
Then—as if by chance—he meets Charles. He’s a dining room captain and assistant maître d’ at the Carlyle Hotel who also just so happens to be an art collector with an interest in horticulture. Their touching story most certainly does not end there though, and as they grow together, their garden flourishes.
Wachsberger’s writing draws the reader in and you’re left feeling as if you’re part of his life as you watch anecdotes and their actions unfold into the overall narrative. He is a generous writer and it’s clear that he tenderly cared for every word in his memoir as I can only imagine he must have cared for every plant in his garden.
The story is also made brighter by how he tends to those he loves in his own life, but the memoir also hinges on his own self-care.
“…if I’d been going for regular checkups. I had never wanted to disappoint Charles. I had never wanted to bring any sadness into his life. My fear of doctors had resulted in this.”
I know that I for one felt as if I was right there during all of the life events he recounts. I rarely feel that way unless I’m experiencing the effects of a well-written memoir. When this book was over I put it down and felt an immense sense of loss. It wasn’t just because the story was over, but let’s just say that Wachsberger skillfully puts the garden to bed for us and as I shut the cover I felt as though the garden gate was permanently closed to me too.
“This moment: these tiny bits of white tossed this way and that by fate, or defying it; Charles’s rapt attention; his profile in shadow against sun-drenched salvia and verbenas; his lips parted in amazement; Rover curled sleeping at his feet—that will forever be the garden for me.”
Throughout the book we meet many characters in his life: family members, an opera singer, a varied cast of other fun people I wish I could have known, small town folks, NYC folks, and Rover the Dog. There is a long list of plants too, but I’ve left them out of this because in the end what the garden is about is people. That’s what Wachsberger so beautifully captures in Into the Garden with Charles. Gardens contain the unseen networks of memory we create over time between our relationships to the past, the present, and the future, but most of all, they’re very often an expression of our love for the lifecycle and beauty of the plant world, and for our own shared human experience.
This is a book I will recommend for many years with the hope that it will inspire others to live as Clyde lived and loved.
Clyde Phillip Wachsberger was an artist, gardener, writer, and retired professional set-designer (later becoming a landscaper in his retirement), but he was more importantly a man who clearly loved life and beauty a great deal and hoped to communicate this to us as humorously and as lovingly as he could in his memoir Into the Garden with Charles.
(A free copy of this book was provided to me by Farrar, Straus and Giroux not long after it was first published.)
2 thoughts on “Book Review: Into the Garden with Charles (by Clyde Phillip Wachsberger)”
So many good books, so little free time! Thanks for this, it sounds like one to seek out.
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