I love Rhys Bowen’s “Royal Spyness” mysteries, and I also really enjoyed “In Farleigh Field,” which was a much more serious historical novel set in the WWII era. So I’m now pretty much just following her as an author. “The Victory Garden” is also a serious novel, though it is set in WWI. It’s also either quite episodic, or else about 3/4 of the book is backstory for what turns out to be a very different sort of tale in the last quarter. I still enjoyed it, but it didn’t hook me the way a more cohesive story might have done.
The story follows Emily, who comes from a wealthy British family. Her mother hopes that she will marry well and take her place in society, but she has become intolerably controlling ever since Emily’s brother Freddie died early in the war. Very much against her mother’s wishes, Emily falls in love with an Australian pilot named Robbie, who considers many of the British cultural values silly. Emily has to go to great lengths to see Robbie without her parents’ knowledge. Wanting to do her part to help in the war, she volunteers to be part of the “Land Army”–essentially as a farmer, since all the men are off to war, and somebody has to plant and harvest the crops so the nation doesn’t starve. Her parents heartily disapprove and threaten to disown her if she doesn’t come home. She defies them; she and Robbie become engaged; she falls pregnant, and then finds out that Robbie has been killed.
In this society, unwed mothers are frowned upon. Emily tries to go home, only to discover essentially that her parents would shun her if she told them her secret. So instead she goes back to the home of a titled lady, whose garden she had worked in as a Land Girl, and asks for room and board in exchange for continuing to work her garden and fields. Two of Emily’s good friends from the Land Army come with her, one as a maid in the grand house and the other helping at a nearby pub. Emily finds diaries of previous women who had lived in the cottage on the property centuries before her, and begins to hear of rumors that the cottage is cursed: every woman who had lived there in the past had come to a bad end. She also hears that the women were witches. When she finds the diaries, she realizes that many of the herbs growing around the cottage are medicinal, and they were “wise woman” or herb women to whom villagers would come for healing. Emily begins to experiment with herbs, reading the diaries as she goes. She finds that both of the previous inhabitants were accused of witchcraft because of their trade, and were falsely accused of murder.
You can probably see where this is going, though it doesn’t get there quickly. Emily has her baby, meets Lady Charlton’s estranged (and presumed dead) grandson, and attempts to reconcile the two. The war ends. She saves the village from the Spanish Flu. She is accused of poisoning Lady Charlton, and history looks like it might repeat itself. This precipitates events that lead to her reconciling with her family (sort of). In the last 2-3 pages there is a twist that is unnecessary and a little too convenient, and it also honestly adds nothing to the story other than to add a nice pretty bow on top of the apparently parallel stories.
“The Victory Garden” is a nice, calm read with a happy ending… good for unwinding at the end of the day, if you don’t want a thriller that might keep you turning pages to find out what happens next.
My rating: *** 1/2
Sexual content: present but mild (as in, premarital sex is present and not portrayed as a bad thing, but it is a fade-out: you don’t see it happening)
Political content: none to speak of (the setting is WWI)