The Cape May Garden, by Claudia Vance

By Rachel Shubin / Fall 2021
Paperback, 2020, 118 pages (Self-published through Amazon)

The summer is not off to a great start for Margaret Wilder, whose husband of 15 years is MIA, her work hours at the local animal life refuge have been cut back, and impending storms threaten her beloved garden. Along with her two daughters, Margaret lives in the not-so-fictional town of West Cape May. The family is trying to cope with the inexplicable disappearance—with no note—of Margaret’s husband Paul. In The Cape May Garden, author Claudia Vance writes a story about life at the beach.

Life has a way of changing quickly and sometimes drastically. Her daughters, six-year-old Abby and eight-year-old Harper are asking questions that Margaret cannot answer. Margaret relies on her extended family for support and tells her sister Liz about Paul’s disappearance. Liz and her husband Greg also live in the Cape May area, having just purchased an old Victorian farmhouse. As soon as Margaret visits, she knows she wants to plant a garden there. Vance easily paints an image of Cape May, which any reader who has visited the town can visualize.

Margaret is surprised when she realizes her sister knew about Paul’s disappearance—apparently their mom, Judy, cannot keep a secret. But, of course, Cape May is a small town, and secrets are not easily kept from spreading.

Besides Paul’s disappearance, the other mystery in Margaret’s life is her animal refuge co-worker, Dave. Despite working with him for a few years, she does not know much about him. As the reader presses on, discoveries will come forth about how Margaret and Dave’s lives intersect without their knowledge. The Cape May Garden has surprises in store for readers.

Disappointed by her now part-time work, Margaret decides to begin researching the farm stand on her sister’s property, discovering it was once known as the Piping Plover Farm Stand. This name is a nod to the popular birds seen on Cape May beaches. She also spends a lot of time working on her garden during May, the prime time to plant seeds in Cape May. She plans to plant on her sister’s property too, eyeing the old farm stand as a potential source of additional income.

Cape May has a great lineage of farming, especially in the borough of West Cape May. Many acres of rural farmland still exist, and fresh food is still very much an essential aspect of Cape May’s economy. Vance writes about gardening and farming in a beautiful way, with a fundamental understanding of the farming heritage in the town, putting readers in mind of the various local farm stands here.   

Another aspect of this novel staying true to Cape May is the weather. Vance writes, “over the last few years, Cape May had started getting more and more tornado warnings during these storms.” It’s true, the weather patterns have become increasingly more unpredictable and unusual. Tornadoes from both thunderstorms and hurricanes, as well as waterspouts have all occurred in Cape May County over the past few years. It is always refreshing to read a book where an author considers the accuracy of details, large and small.

On the days where Margaret works, she tries to socialize more with Dave. She tells him how her freshly planted garden was wiped out by the intense storms that moved through the area. He offers to help her with the re-planting of her garden. While they are planting, Margaret tells Dave about the Victorian house her sister purchased, and they realize that it was Dave’s childhood home. But the coincidences do not stop there, as Dave’s family were farmers and ran the farm stand.

Like many small-town coincidences, the intersections of Dave and Margaret’s lives do not stop at the farm. As Dave and Margaret grow closer and spend time together with her family, there are many surprises and realizations which could impact the future. The story intertwines small-town life, personal and relational struggles and does so in an enjoyable story. Vance sets up the story to continue in future books, a nine-book series, with the last book scheduled to be released in 2022.

The story of Margaret, Dave, and their families continue in the series as well as new characters. The Cape May Garden is a casual read with realistic scenarios and the right amount of mystery and intrigue that keep the reader hooked to find out what happens next. The stories are short, with just the right amount of Cape May mentions for a feel-good read.

Readers will be pleasantly surprised to find descriptions of fictional restaurants and the pedestrian mall. Other than Sunset Beach, most specific locations are not directly named, which was an intentional decision by the author. This choice gives the reader more leeway with their imaginations. Vance captures the elements that make Cape May an attractive place to vacation and to live year-round. The Cape May Garden is a book that is best read while overlooking the beautiful terrain of (West) Cape May.