REVIEW: The Winter Garden by Nicola Cornick
Sweeping across generations from the 1600s to the present day and inspired by the true story of the leader of the infamous Gunpowder Plot, Nicola Cornick’s latest historical mystery combines past and present story lines that fans of Philippa Gregory and Susanna Kearsley will devour.
1605: Anne Catesby fears for her family. Her son, the darkly charismatic Robert, is secretly plotting to kill the king, placing his wife and child in grave danger. Anne must make a terrible choice: betray her only child or risk her family’s security…and her very life.
Present Day: When her dreams of becoming a musician are shattered, Lucy takes refuge in her family’s ancestral home in Oxfordshire. Everyone knows it was originally home to the notorious gunpowder plotter Robert Catesby. As Lucy spends more time in the beautiful winter garden that Robert made, she starts to have strange visions of a woman in Tudor dress, terrified and facing a heartbreaking dilemma.
As Lucy’s and Anne’s stories converge, a shared secret that has echoed through the centuries separating them will change Lucy’s life forever…
Dear Ms. Cornick,
It’s been a while since I’ve read one of your books but this cover and the inclusion of the Gunpowder Plot (“Remember, remember the fifth of November”) made me say, “why not?” It turned out to be a fairly by-the-numbers women’s fiction/dual-timeline in which modern characters have to discover something about a historical mystery.
1600s – Anne Catesby is worried about her feckless but charming son Robert. The young man has the charisma to easily beguile people into following him, the courage of his convictions (namely about his Catholic faith), but little common sense. His wife Catherine and their two young sons had steadied Robert but with Catherine and the eldest boy dying within days, Anne fears that Robert will be unmoored and prey to falling into something dreadful.
Modern day – Lucy Brown has poured her life into her music. The headlines had just begun touting her as a rising star when neural complications from an infection appear to have ended her career. Retreating to her aunt’s country house – which has a tie-in to the Catesby family – she wants to hide her hurt but finds a steady gardener there who is trying to uncover and reconstruct a Tudor garden that was once there.
Then Lucy begins to see and dream about a woman in historical clothes. Is this really Catherine Catesby and why is she drawn to Lucy? What is the secret Catherine desperately wants to be found and saved?
So, the historical research is solid and I learned a little about the main men behind the plot to blow up the king and parliament in the name of freedom of religion. But I felt I learned more about the Catesby family and their various relations than anything about what would drive men to try and do something like this. The former manor house that ties the two timelines together is, if I have read correctly, made up. Since so little is known about the historical Catherine I just accepted that most everything about her seemed realistic.
I’ll be honest and admit that the flow of the story is slow and gentle. Even when I thought my emotions were probably supposed to be heightened, I really didn’t feel it. Instead these bits felt like those low speed bumps that you really don’t have to slow your car down much to go over. Nothing grabbed me by the throat and made me sit up in anticipation. Even when Anne Catesby is supposed to be frantic to try and save her son and his fellow conspirators, it felt more like she tried, she failed, she shrugged her shoulders, and she left London. The romance is confined to the modern time and mainly consisted of a few long glances, some cryptic statements, and a few kisses. Tepid, really.
The book is not unpleasant, the details of life in the late sixteenth century are interesting but if I hadn’t been hurrying to try and finish this before the end of 2022, I would not have felt compelled to pick it up and keep going as quickly as I did. It needed an oomph that wasn’t there. C+