The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert

“Kate Walbert’s fine, delicate prose captures voices that we don’t hear much anymore…The Gardens of Kyoto is a ghost story, a mystery, a love story.” – Amy Bloom

I read about The Gardens of Kyoto by  Kate Walbert on a ‘Top Ten’ list and chose it for my book club a couple years ago. Many of the members of my book club weren’t enamoured with the book, but I was smitten from the book’s opening line: “I had a cousin, Randall, killed in Iwo Jima.”

The story seems simple enough. The novel’s narrator, Ellen, comes of age around the time of World War II and recalls her life and her relationship with Randall some forty years later. Her story makes for compelling reading. But it isn’t just Ellen’s story to tell- she inherits Randall’s diary and a book called ‘The Gardens of Kyoto’ and we get a glimpse of several other lives.

Walbert’s book is marked by gorgeous prose and a fully realized sense of place. I found the book wholly satisfying, heartbreaking and emotionally resonant.

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1. There are actually three stories in the book. What is the purpose of the way the story is told?

2. Ellen says: “It was then, I believe, that Sterling took my hand, and I felt for the first time his fingers like loose die in my palm, never before having touched this man whose son I loved, because I did, truly, love Randall. Cousins sometimes do.” (p 177)

What is the significance of this statement? What is Ellen’s perception of the nature of love?

3. Talk about Ellen’s relationships with the following characters: Randall, Sterling, Rita, Betty, Henry, Daphne.

4. What role does the house play in the book? What is the significance of the secret room and what happened there? What does the destruction of the house mean?

5. There are three unwed mothers in the book. Talk about why each chose the route they did.

Reading Guide

Warm Chocolate Cakes

2 T cocoa
1/2 c unsalted butter
8 squares bittersweet or semi sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
8 eggs
1 c granulated sugar
2/3 all-purpose flour

Lightly butter 12 muffin cups. Sift a little cocoa over each and shake out the excess. Preheat oven to 400F (200C). Melt butter and chocolate together, stirring often until smooth.

2. Separate 4 eggs, placing yolks into large bowl, saving whites for something else. Add remaining 4 whole eggs and sugar. Beat with an electric mixer until lighter in colour, 3-5 minutes. Whisking constantly, pour in warm chocolate. Gradually beat in flour until just combined.

Dividing equally, pour batter into muffin cups. Bake in centre of oven until sides are crustly and resemble a muffin, but tops are still soft, 9-11 minutes. Do not overbake. Let stand 5 minutes. Cake centres will flatten and appear to fall. Run a knife around edges and remove each cake from cup and invert onto a heat-proof serving plate. Serve warm with berries and whipped cream.

You can make the cakes ahead. Be sure to take them out of the muffin tins after 5 minutes, though, or they are hard to get out! To reheat, place bottom side up and microwave 30-45 seconds or heat, uncovered, on a baking sheet in a preheated 450F oven for 4 minutes.


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