Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Sea Garden (Book Review)

Title: The Sea Garden
Author: Deborah Lawrenson
Publication Information: HarperCollins, hardcover, 2014
Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction
Plot: This book consists of three interlocking novellas.  In the first story, set in 2013, Ellie Brooke, a landscape architect, has traveled to an island off the French coast to restore a long neglected garden. Her employer is an urbane older Frenchman with an eccentric elderly mother. Ellie’s visit has ominous overtones even before she reaches the decayed home of the de Fayols family, but she experiences the usual gothic intimidation once she arrives: hostility, a host who abandons her, mysterious strangers, her possessions rifled, and she becomes mysteriously dizzy.  Ellie’s narrative ends abruptly.

The second story appears unconnected.  Set during WWII, it is about a blind young Frenchwoman who works for a small family perfume business in Provence.  Slowly, Marthe becomes aware that her employers are involved in the Resistance and are sheltering English and American pilots and agents, later to be smuggled past the German soldiers to safety.  Can shy but appealing Marthe play a part in this dangerous undertaking?

The third and most appealing story, also set during WWII, is about Iris Nightingale, a young woman working for British intelligence in London.  Part of her job is preparing men and women to go undercover in Occupied France.  We see Iris gain in confidence as the war goes on and her responsibilities increase (although the condescension of the men she works for is infuriating); then she falls in love with a dashing French agent, and her life will never be the same.     

Audience: Fans of historical fiction and of “past-present” books; those interested in WWII.

What I liked:  Overall, this book was a good blend of suspense and enough romance to make it interesting.  At first, I had a hard time getting into it because the first novella, Ellie’s story, was very dark and seemingly disorganized, and left me wondering what I had missed.  However, Marthe’s narrative, although familiar to me from many books about occupied France (for example, Fair Stood the Wind for France, which I enjoyed last year), was somewhat different because told through the prism of her blindness.  It was improbable but dramatic and unexpected.   Most of all, I enjoyed the third story, which was set in WWII London and had a dramatic and magical feel.  Iris was a delightful heroine, practical and good humored, but capable of a great romance with a dashing French stranger.  I also liked Iris’ friendship with another young woman working in British Intelligence and her work for a formidable boss, Miss Acton.  Several times, I found myself wishing the whole book had been told from Iris’ perspective because (as has been well disclosed) I love books about young women’s war work. 

The author left it very late to reveal the mystery connecting the three novellas, and while I had somewhat figured out where she was going I was still surprised by some of the outcome (and admired the unexpected ending, despite not liking it).  Once I finished the book, I had to reread the entire first section to see if some of my confusion would be alleviated.

What I disliked:  As mentioned elsewhere, the three novellas were uneven and I am still perplexed by some of the things that happened to Ellie, including the significance of the man who committed suicide on the boat, and how a newspaper story about her landscape work caused a woman on a remote French island to seek her services (well, I understand how but wish it were a little more plausible). And I can’t help feeling it is a pity to have a devastating hero like Xavier but give him so little time on stage.  

Source: I received an advance copy of this book from Harper Collins in return for an honest review.  Despite some unanswered questions, I recommend The Sea Garden enthusiastically, especially to friends who share my passion for fiction about WWII – four stars.  Let’s compare notes about Ellie’s part of the story when you finish. 

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