Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Review: The Summer Country by Lauren Willig

We might think we know many things from history but more has been forgotten or hidden than has ever been written down, giving us an incomplete knowledge of actual people and events of the past. This is true on a grand scale, but it can also be true on a much smaller, more personal scale as well. In Lauren Willig's newest novel, The Summer Country, the secrets of the past change history in a very personal way.

In 1854, Emily Dawson travels from England to Barbados with her cousin Adam and his wife so that she can look into the mysterious inheritance her grandfather has left her. Adam's father (and by extension Adam) inherited the family's lucrative shipping business while Emily, a favorite of her grandfather, has been left a previously unmentioned sugar plantation on Barbados. She cannot think why she's inherited Peverills, especially when she discovers that it's in ruins, having been burned in Bussa's Rebellion in 1816. Determining to learn all about the plantation, she ends up staying at Beckles, a neighboring plantation, run with an iron fist by the assertive and intimidating Mrs. Davenant, who clearly wants to make a match between her grandson, George, and Emily.

In 1812, Charles Davenant returns from England in the wake of his father's death to take up the reins of Peverills. His relationship with younger brother Robert, who was never offered the chance to go to England, has soured and is fraught with jealousy on Robert's part. In addition to the tension within his own house, Chalres is faced with tension without as well in the persons of Mary Anne Beckles, the owner of Beckles plantation, her domineering uncle Colonel Lyons, and the quiet, inscrutable enslaved maid Jenny who must tread carefully between her mistress and her natural father, the Colonel. Charles is idealistic, having returned to Barbados with progressive ideas about freeing slaves and cooperative farming but these ideas and his goal of changing the system from within aren't shared by everyone, including his brother and Mary Anne, and when it matters most to him that they come to fruition, he will fail.

The two different timelines alternate back and forth, revealing small hints and pieces of family history as Emily moves through her own daily goings-on, searching for answers, enlisting the help of George Davenant from Beckles and Dr. Braithwaite, the nephew of her late grandfather's black partner, Mr. Turner, as she digs into the question of Peverills and just why this ruined place was left to her. The characters in both timelines are quite well fleshed out, with the possible exception of Emily's grandfather, which is both surprising and in a way, necessary. Emily as a character is very forthright and forward thinking in ways that might seem anachronistic for her time except for the constant reiteration of her parents' pedigrees as reformers and humanists. The novel is almost Gothic in tone, with an undercurrent of creeping uneasiness pervading Beckles and Emily's interactions with Mrs. Davenant. This same whiff of menace weaves through Beckles in the 1812 story line as well. The revelation of the family secrets was slow and steady, just enough to feed speculation. The chapter bridges, the first sentence of a new chapter echoing the last sentence of the previous chapter is quite clever and helps to connect the two different timelines nicely. The epilogue, set between the two time periods of the narrative, was an interesting and unconventional way to end the book but it worked. It did take a bit of reading to get into the story and then the family secrets weren't terribly hard to figure out but the story was ultimately compelling. Readers who enjoy historical fiction, who are interested in exotic locations like Barbados, who like uncovering family secrets, and who thrill to a suggestion of the Gothic will be well rewarded here.

For more information about Lauren Willig and the book, check our her author website, like her on Facebook, follow her on Instagram or Twitter, look at the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and publisher Harper Collins for sending me a copy of this books for review.

1 comment:

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