Book Review for “The Summer Country” by Lauren Willig.
In Barbados, the two neighboring sugar plantations of Peverills and Beckles had always been somehow joined, and yet somehow remained separate, if not at war with each other. The Bussa’s Rebellion of 1816 saw Peverills burned to the ground, while Beckles survived. While it seemed that the secrets that preceded that fateful event went up in smoke, forty years later, when Emily inherits what’s left of Peverills, she begins to sift through the ashes. Despite the best efforts of the present residents of Beckles, sparks begin to fly, reigniting the past and revealing the truths behind all the lies.
Okay, so I got a bit poetic with that summary, but I couldn’t resist. Plus, I really didn’t want to start describing the many characters here, since you can find many, much better synopses of this novel on other sites, like this one from Kirkus Reviews:
In 1854, Emily Dawson and her cousin Adam arrive on the island of Barbados in the British West Indies, he to secure contracts for the family shipping company and she to take possession of Peverills, the plantation she unexpectedly inherited from their late grandfather, Jonathan Fenty. Fenty, once the bookkeeper at Peverills, had been a “Redleg”—the Barbadian term for poor whites—but then he had escaped to England and made his fortune. On arriving in Barbados, Emily and Adam meet their grandfather’s wealthy business associate, Mr. Turner (a former slave), and his nephew, Nathanial Braithwaite, a medical doctor, who will figure heavily in Emily’s future. During an uprising of enslaved people that led to emancipation in 1816, Peverills was burned down and has laid in ruins ever since. Beckles, the neighboring plantation, is run by the imperious Mrs. Davenant with the assistance of her grandson, George. The action shifts back and forth between 1812-1816 and 1854 as the tangled histories of the two plantations painstakingly emerge. In 1812, Charles Davenant, the older son lately returned from England, has inherited Peverills, much to the chagrin of his younger brother, Robert. Charles tries to mollify Robert by encouraging him to court Mary Anne, heiress to Beckles. Charles’ heart belongs to Mary Anne’s enslaved maid, Jenny, the mixed-race daughter of Mary Anne’s uncle. Jenny is torn between loving Charles and her struggle for freedom. Complications, rivalries, and plot points ensue, leading up to mysteries surrounding Emily’s lineage.
Yes, this does sound very complicated, and with the alternating timelines, this could have made the action very difficult to follow. And yet, Willig keeps things very controlled with her switching between the two times. This includes clever segues where the last line of the previous chapter is very closely echoed in the first line of the next chapter. (I’m guessing that not everyone will catch that little trick, but I did because I’m using it myself in my own “work in progress”!) More importantly, this helps build the suspense as all the various secrets to come to light very slowly. Mind you, there were a couple of things about which I was able to make correct guesses from quite early on in the novel, but to her credit, Willig did keep me guessing about many other pieces to her elaborate puzzle.
What impressed me the most about this novel was the atmosphere that Willig was able to imbue in the narrative. For example, the oppressive heat of that location seemed to color practically every scene here with a sort of heavy, humid quality. This worked well with the format of the novel, as I also associate the heat with a physically sluggish pace. While some reviewers have noted that they felt the pace of this novel was too lethargic for their taste, I didn’t mind this at all. In fact, it allowed me to savor the narrative, giving me time to think about these characters, get better acquainted with them, and understand their actions and their motivations. Mind you, for an unhurried narrative to succeed, it requires an evocative narrative style, and this is something that Willig certainly provided, and in spades.
With all this praise, I should mention that I was a touch annoyed by some of the angst in the romantic additions here, and some of the resolutions to some of the problems seemed a bit too convenient for my taste. However, these niggles weren’t all that problematic, and didn’t detract that much. Plus, Willig gave us a really genius ending to this book that left me saying “OH!” when I read it. Remember, a good ending can make or break a novel, and I think the last chapter here was the perfect way to fill in one last, tiny piece to the sweeping puzzle, and conclude this story.
I should add that this is both an era and a location that I knew absolutely nothing about. In fact, the reason why I asked for this novel wasn’t because of the topic, but because I’d read her short story in “Fall of Poppies” and also enjoyed “The Glass Ocean” which is the book she collaborated on with Beatriz Williams and Karen White (AKA “Team W”). Because of these two works, I really wanted to read a solo, full-length book from her. Of course, that does come with high expectations, and I’m pleased to say that Willig didn’t disappoint. Overall, I really enjoyed this novel, and I think this book deserves a very solid four stars out of five, which is a very warm (but not sweaty) recommendation from me.
William Morrow – Harper Collins released “The Summer Country” by Lauren Willig on June 4, 2019. This book is available from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US (ebook and audiobook), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.