A tale of three gardens

A prepublication Big5+ review

r/suggestmeabook: I want a drama about women of various eras dealing with similar issues about work and love.

Edwardian, WWII and contemporary

Rating: PG

Publication date: 1/12/2021

From the publisher:

From the publisher: Present day: Emma Lovett, who has dedicated her career to breathing new life into long-neglected gardens, has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime.

1907: A talented artist with a growing reputation for her ambitious work, Venetia Smith has carved out a niche for herself as a garden designer.

1944: When land girl Beth Pedley arrives at a farm on the outskirts of the village of Highbury, all she wants is to find a place she can call home. Cook Stella Adderton, on the other hand, is desperate to leave Highbury House to pursue her own dreams. And widow Diana Symonds, the mistress of the grand house, is anxiously trying to cling to her pre-war life.

Julia Kelly expertly explores the themes of women and work in two major past periods and contemporary England through the frame of a garden. What will you give up for your dream of work or your dream of love? We used to think we could have it all, but Kelly does a good job of showing that from the dawn of professional female artists, compromises have had to be made.

With blonde hair that was beginning to streak with silver, it would have been easy to think that the woman who dressed in demure pastels and high lace collars would be compassionate. Five minutes with Cynthia, however, and anyone would have been disabused of that notion. Cynthia was made of flint and dogma.

Julia Kelly, The Last Garden in England

At first, it was a little difficult to keep up with whose point of view was being discussed, despite the labeling of each chapter with each of the five women’s names.

Venetia was easy enough, given the unique name coupled with the earlier period, but I had a more trouble remembering which of the other four names matched which woman. The tone is fairly consistent for all these points of view, despite the fact that Venetia is first person and the other four are third party close.

Another theme she explores is the one of home: what constitutes one and when do we start wanting one? All of the women have different answers, and the answers morph with their character arcs, which are developed at a believable pace, as seasons change.

The choice to explore three different women during WWII is interesting. Of late, it feels like land girls and occupied country estates have been fairly thoroughly explored, but juxtaposing the land girl, the lady of the house, and the cook for the great house helps illuminate all of them in new and interesting ways.

The garden itself is lost on me. I have a vague sense of all the plants she was describing, but not the specifics of them or what a room in a garden is. However, it still worked for me, as the love of the various characters for the garden and what it symbolized to each of them came through.

A solid piece of historical fiction—probably not one to haunt my dreams, but The Last Garden in England was a good meat and potatoes read.


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