Genre: Historical Fantasy Age Range: Adult Star Rating: 4 stars Series: standalone CW: depression, domestic abuse, loss of a child, drug abuse
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.
Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.
With a title like THE WINTER GARDEN, I was expecting a wintry read. It’s not, instead about grief and misogyny and the grief and pain of struggling against a society that wants to push down you and confine you to the box of a trophy and brood mare. This darkness does not feel represented at all in blurb, which appears to promise a sparkling, magical competition (and it is a rather dark, grief-filled book.) This disconnect between blurb and reality (and how that affected reading what would otherwise have been a brilliant reading experience) is going to be a theme in this review.
Both women are continually fighting against “medical” advice that says they can’t be spinsters/not have sex with a highly abusive husband because it will “bring on hysteria.” And then when they do get ill, their actions that don’t align with that of “the perfect women” are to blame.
It’s the sort of book that makes you so angry at the world, because even though it’s historical fiction, these things still happen today, these are the words used as weapons against women almost 200 years later. That anger makes you root for the protagonists, want them to win, because it will be a win against the world of men.
It also makes you upset that these women are so hurt that their actions are making them fight each other, rather than banding together and taking a stand. This adds another layer of expectation/desire pushing you towards the end, as the desire for them to stand together conflicts with the desire for them to win.
One of the girls, Beatrice, is aroace (in my opinion, as it’s never stated anywhere in the promo material that she is.) I related so much to her – her fight to be seen as “worthy” despite not being in a relationship, questioning whether there was something wrong with her for not wanting a relationship when everyone was telling her . I love finding characters like this front and centre, not pushed to the side.
The blurb isn’t particularly representative of what to expect in my opinion. For one, it only talks about one of the women, when it’s a dual POV book. In some ways, Rosa felt like the main POV. The book begins with Beatrice’s perspective, but it felt like Rosa had more page time and impact on the overall story, growing more and facing greater challenges.
Also, the start of the book it not about the competition at all. It took until about the halfway point for the competition to arrive. I am of the opinion that blurbs should set up the start of the book, the main conflict, and give hints of what is to come, but are primarily about setting expectations. That blurb set my expectations for the competition to come early, so I found the first half a bit baffling and lacking as “where was this big competition I was promised? Where is the goal for these characters?”
The first half, instead, sets up why the two characters end up wanting the competition’s prize, but are rather lacking in goals to work towards. This made the pacing feel quite slow as there wasn’t something they were working towards – it felt like 250+ of set up just to get to this big promised thing. Enjoyable, but lacking something.
This book is historical fantasy, with most of the fantasy elements coming from the magic flora and fauna of the world (given the largely absent garden that’s mostly just a concept.) There’s almost-living clockwork and plants that sparkle. It creates a lovely atmosphere, and I love the botany aspect but, again, it seems at odds with the blurb.
In all, it was a poignant book, just one that felt badly misrepresented.