Although the book is a novel, the only truly consistent thing in the book is place: all of the action takes place in Blackwell, Massachusetts, from the town's founding in the 1700s to the present day. Each chapter gives a little glimpse of the town's history, letting the reader see moments that shaped Blackwell, its families, and its lore. Each chapter can stand very well on its own, yet when all of the stories are woven together into one novel the end result is something so, so beautiful.
Hoffman really lets her readers inhabit Blackwell; she allows its mysteries and secrets to permeate everything, and the reader can alternately delight in its wonders and mourn its tragedies. Several historical figures make subtle appearances, but the real gems are the men, women, and children who live their lives in Blackwell. It's great fun to think about the family trees in the book and, as time and tales progress, to think about who is related to whom.
What's truly remarkable about The Red Garden is the quiet, moving ordinariness that spans the novel. Each chapter feels full of characters who experience extraordinary things--a drowning, a murder, an accident that claims one's memory--and each of these stories could easily be expanded into its own book. But with so many extraordinary characters and stories making up the book, suddenly every story begins to feel un-extraordinary, average. We all experience extraordinary things, but Hoffman skillfully shows that such experiences are not what make us extraordinary beings.
I'd suggest this book for readers who enjoy short stories, stories where place is a major character, and quiet, thoughtful fiction.