Book Review: The Winter Garden
The Winter Garden
Written by Alexandra Bell
Published by Del Rey
Publication date: 2nd September 2021
Summary (from Goodreads):
Welcome to the Winter Garden. Open only at 13 o’clock.
You are invited to enter an unusual competition.
I am looking for the most magical, spectacular, remarkable pleasure garden this world has to offer.
On the night her mother dies, 8-year-old Beatrice receives an invitation to the mysterious Winter Garden. A place of wonder and magic, filled with all manner of strange and spectacular flora and fauna, the garden is her solace every night for seven days. But when the garden disappears, and no one believes her story, Beatrice is left to wonder if it were truly real.
Eighteen years later, on the eve of her wedding to a man her late father approved of but she does not love, Beatrice makes the decision to throw off the expectations of Victorian English society and search for the garden. But when both she and her closest friend, Rosa, receive invitations to compete to create spectacular pleasure gardens – with the prize being one wish from the last of the Winter Garden’s magic – she realises she may be closer to finding it than she ever imagined.
Now all she has to do is win.
They say gardens are good for the soul, and the magical Winter Garden most of all. You’ll never find it in one place for long. It goes where it is needed, appearing from nothing and vanishing just as quickly. Some days you might spot it high in the mountains of Nepal; on others it will materialise in the mists of Mongolia. During the summer it may choose to settle for a spell in the rolling green fields of England, or shrink down for the winter to squeeze into the inside of a teacup.
The garden is a place of wonder and magic in a world that often has so little of both. Full of strange birds and impossible flowers, mushrooms that dance with you and trees that whisper secrets, frog music and frosted fairies in their finest fur coats.
Nobody knows how it came to be – only that is belongs to the elusive Spider Queen, about whom almost as little is known as about the garden itself. She decides where the garden should go and who should be invited to see it. By all accounts she has an affinity for the lost and the lonely, the misfits and the misunderstood, the broken and the bereft, the heartsore and the hurting.
Certainly, those who claim to have seen the garden say that it appeared to them in their darkest, bleakest moments when they were most in need of its soft lights and scented delights, its compassion and kindness for all lost souls.
Beatrice Anne Sitwell was eight years old the first time she discovered the garden. Or, more accurately, when it discovered her. It was already a day to remember, because it was the day her mother died.
First impressions: From these first words, I was drawn into this vision of magical garden where one can go to escape from pain or sorrow in the real world…and who wouldn’t wish for such a sanctuary? I first came across this book during a Blogger event showcasing upcoming titles from Del Rey and this was a title that really stood out to me, even in an excellent line-up!
As a child I adored Tom’s Midnight Garden, Moondial and The Secret Garden so anything even remotely similar was always going to catch my eye. Add a sprinkle of magic to the mix, plus some inspiration from botanical artists and ‘plant hunters’ in the Victorian period and I couldn’t wait to get reading.
For those who are already tipping towards getting this book, please do! It has come out just in time to be added to your wintry to-be-read pile and will be perfect to curl up with to read when the weather turns chiller (I would also recommend adding The Bear and the Nightingale, Spinning Silver and The Toymakers to this pile!)
The story follows two women, each as different as can be, yet linked in many ways and living in a male-dominated society where their skills and passions are seen as drawbacks rather than assets.
Beatrice’s life is dominated by a decision she made in fear as a child, as well as a sense of never really fitting in. She has a stutter and has undergone dreadful ‘treatment’ to correct it. This treatment left her voiceless at a time when she most needed to communicate and has bled into other areas of her life where she feels as if she it not heard when she expresses her opinion. With an ‘unnatural’ interest in scientific research, botanical drawings and a desire to explore the world and all the wonders to be found, she is a poor fit for Victorian society in England where wives are expected to be subordinate to their husbands and focus on their households.
She becomes friends with Rosa, an outspoken American, from a family of ‘artificers’ who create wondrous clockwork creatures that are so realistic that they appear as magical. Rosa is a strong character, but has a dream of becoming an English ‘duchess’ or ‘princess’. She sees Beatrice as having this advantage, although to Beatrice it is more of a mixed blessing.
Their friendship throughout the years grows and changes, twisting and turning as they each face various challenges in their lives. When they are offered the opportunity to win the prize of changing just one decision in their past, they are both determined to be winners. Yet, could changing just one decision have unintended consequences? How can any one person argue that they deserve this chance more than another?
What I liked: I loved the characters as they felt to me like real people, with flaws and facets to their personalities. The role of women in Victorian times is one that particularly interests me, especially women involved in scientific research and botanical drawing in a time where these were deemed as only suitable for men. (Read The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge or The House of Hidden Wonders by Sharon Golding for more fiction inspired by pioneering women in this period).
The magical realism in this book is perfectly described and I found it difficult to tear myself away from the beautiful images of the orchids with special talents, teacup rabbits and loyal black apple trees which bare teeth at intruders, but protect a lonely young girl.
Having had my first child just before the 2020 lockdown, I related to the challenges Rosa faced with her pregnancy and caring for her children. The isolation that many new mothers face can be intense, while it can be difficult for those on the outside to understand why a new mother has become withdrawn. The author uses both Rosa’s and Beatrice’s story to draw out historical parallels and challenge some assumptions about gender, as well as shine a light on how attitudes such as those of several powerful men in the book were counterproductive for everyone (e.g. refusal to admit women to the Linnean society, etc).
Even better if: As much as I love a good standalone, I really didn’t want this book to end. I would have followed these characters anywhere…
How you could use it in your classroom: This would be a fantastic recommendation for any adult readers who have enjoyed fantasy, magical realism or historical fiction. It could also be used with older learners to examine the roles of women in society and as a springboard into further research into botanical drawings, plant hunters and the dissemination of information by scientific societies.
What did other people think?
Waterstones says: “A mesmerising, stunningly crafted story of loss and the importance of dreams, The Winter Garden sees a young woman enter a competition to design a spectacular pleasure garden, with a promise to revisit the magical place of her childhood if she wins.”
Claire from @Bookish Reads and Me says: “The Winter Garden is an enchanting and touching read about loss and how your dreams can come true. But maybe not in the way you would expect. . .”
Karen from @Twisted in Pages says: “The book has it’s own unique atmosphere which shifts from a beautiful fairytale to something quite dark and sinister.”
Fi from @Fi’s Bibliofiles says: “It isn’t quite the magical adventure that the blurb promises but instead is set in such a fabulous magical world while exploring grief and depression in a sensitive and gorgeous way. “
Fabienne from @ Libri Draconis says: “very highly recommend this delightful book if you’re looking for some escapism, and like some whimsy in your stories.”
Don’t miss the other stops on this blog tour!
Thank you to Alice and Del Rey for including me in the blog tour and sending me an early proof copy. All quotations are from this proof, so will need to be verified with the published edition. Opinions remain my own and I would love to hear what you think, if you agree or disagree with any of my points and if you will be picking this book up to read on your next trip to the library or bookshop.
About the Author:
Alex Bell was born in 1986. She always wanted to be a writer but had several different back-up plans to ensure she didn’t end up in the poor house first. For some years these ranged from dolphin trainer to animal shelter vet but then, at fifteen, she had an epiphany involving John and Robert Kennedy and decided to become a lawyer instead.
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Thanks for reading!