THE WHITE GARDEN by Stephanie Barron

Book Quote:

“Harold is quite free of certain hypocrisies regarding our national character—that gentlemen are honourable, that allegiances are always clear. That there is a right way of living and a wrong. Harold understands that people lie; that self-deception if the most powerful technique for survival; that we are all riddled with competing loyalties that confuse and divide us.”

Book Review:

Review by Eleanor Bukowsky (DEC 5, 2009)

In Stephanie Barron’s The White Garden, thirty-four year old landscape gardener Jo Bellamy visits Kent, England, in October 2008. She has come to Sissinghurst to see the magnificent home of the writer Vita-Sackville-West, who was an avid gardener herself and a close friend of Virginia Woolf. Jo’s client, the fabulously wealthy Graydon Westlake, has hired her to replicate the famed White Garden on his East Hampton estate. When she arrives at her destination, Jo is greeted with barely concealed disdain by Imogen Cantwell, the head gardener. Cantwell has a bad feeling, “as though a serpent, in the form of this mild American woman, had suddenly slithered through Sissinghurst’s garden.”

Cantwell is not completely wrong about Jo. She has not come to Kent merely to fulfill her mission for Westlake; she wants to find out what triggered the suicide of her beloved grandfather, Jock Bellamy, who was eighty-four when he died. At the age of seventeen, Jock worked in Sissinghurst as a gardener; something happened there that left him severely traumatized. Instead of concentrating on her work for Westlake, Jo finds herself digging into archives and looking for clues that will eventually explain not just the reason for Jock’s melancholy, but also the strange events surrounding the death of Virginia Woolf.

Barron has a knack for bringing the past to life. She veers back and forth from wartime England to the present day, and provides interesting theories about Virginia and Leonard Woolf as well as Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson. The author’s picturesque description of Kent’s exquisite gardens contrasts sharply with the dark deeds and betrayals that Jo uncovers as her search progresses. Unfortunately, at times The White Garden smacks of gimmickry, with its DaVinci Code-like elements (there are a few too many “Aha!” moments, in which one character or another has an epiphany leading to yet another unexpected find) and speculations about a clandestine society made up of devious men with a hidden agenda.

To complicate matters further, Barron inserts an awkward romantic subplot into the mix. Although Gray, who is past fifty, is married to his third wife, he makes a play for Jo, who would not appear to be his type. (Gray tells a skeptical Jo, “You’ve never been hired help. You’re my true north.”) Another man enters the picture when Jo finds an unsigned notebook that may have been written by Woolf. Jo hands the manuscript over to Peter Llewellyn, who is employed by Sotheby’s, for expert analysis. Peter is suave, handsome, and highly intelligent, and he soon teams up with Jo in a race against time. They are determined to outwit Peter’s covetous boss, Marcus Symonds-Jones, and Llewellyn’s rapacious ex-wife, an Oxford don and egotist named Margaux Strand who, for reasons of her own, would like to get her hands on any newly unearthed manuscripts relating to Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.

The White Garden is an intriguing mystery and compelling character study. Stephanie Barron skillfully captures the precariousness of life in England in the 1940’s, when Hitler’s bombs were raining down on the heads of a frightened populace. The suspense builds as the numerous pieces of an intricate puzzle slowly fall into place. Adding to the book’s entertainment value is Barron’s close examination of the personalities and actions of Woolf, her husband, and their eccentric circle of associates. As the narrative proceeds, however, its contrivances become all too apparent and they tend to weaken the novel’s effectiveness. Still, The White Garden is worth reading for its fine descriptive writing and its imaginative look at a significant period in English literary and political history. Woolf aficionados will definitely not want to miss this one.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 16 readers
PUBLISHER: Bantam (September 29, 2009)
REVIEWER: Eleanor Bukowsky
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Stephanie Barron
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Same time period:
The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys

A Quiet Belief in Angels by R. J. Ellory


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December 6, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Mystery/Suspense

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