On Susanna Kearsley: gleanings and the value of them
Earlier this year, I read The Deadly Hours – well 2 of the stories in it anyway – which featured Weapon of Choice by Susanna Kearsley. The POV character is Hugh, who was the male lead in A Desperate Fortune. Hugh and Mary are most prominently featured but there are 2 other couples who appear to one degree or another as well – Anna and Edmund from The Firebird and Daniel and Eva from The Rose Garden (reviewed here by Sunita).
The story itself is a self-contained little mystery (all the novellas in the anthology are linked together by a cursed watch – La Sirene) and some fabulous development of the romance between Hugh and Mary.
It sent me down a Kearsley re-read rabbit hole. I started with A Desperate Fortune and then went on to re-read The Rose Garden. It’s that book I most want to talk about.
For those who don’t know, Kearsley writes historical fiction, often with a contemporary timeline as well, sometimes involving the supernatural (telemetry, ESP, time travel, reincarnation) with romantic elements complete with a HEA (often more than one in fact). Her full-length novels are written in the first person from the perspective of the female lead or lead characters and the heroine’s journey is often a bigger part of the story than the romance. Certainly, the historical aspects of the books are more prominently featured.
I am a dyed-in-the-wool romance reader. The Rose Garden was my very first Kearsley. The first time I read it, I didn’t really understand that Kearsley does not write genre romance and I approached the book in much the same way I approach any historical, PNR or contemporary romance; expecting the major focus to be on the romantic relationship. I remember enjoying the book but commented at the time that I felt the romance was a bit light on. I’ve read The Rose Garden 3 or 4 times now and I’ve come to realise that I wasn’t reading it right that first time.
Before I continue, I’ll mention a bit about the story: Eva Ward comes to Cornwall and to Trelowarth, a big house outside the fictional town of Polgelly on the Southern Coast of England, to scatter the ashes of her beloved sister. When they were young, the family summered there with friends, the Hallett family. Now all grown up, Mark Hallett has taken over Trelowarth Roses, assisted by his sister Susan and their stepmother, Claire. Eva is lost after the death of her sister. She has no other family and no close ties to anywhere else. She decides to spend the summer at Trelowarth while she decides what and where is next for her.
At Trelowarth she notices a number of strange things occurring; voices of people who aren’t there, paths which appear and reappear and before long, she finds herself 300 years in the past, just prior to the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. There she meets Daniel Butler, one of a pair of smuggling brothers who are loyal to King James. In 1715 there is also an evil Constable with a grudge against the Butlers and as the summer progresses and the rebellion approaches the specter of treason charges against Daniel looms larger.
Eva has no control over when she travels in time, in either direction. (During some of her visits to 1715 she doesn’t see Daniel at all.)
In 2015, Eva helps the Hallett family set up tea rooms to boost their income (Trelowarth Roses is in financial trouble) and gives Mark an assist with a romance of his own and in 1715, Eva falls in love. Can Eva and Daniel have a meaningful life if she keeps disappearing on him at random? Will he be able to outwit the Constable? Where does Eva belong? When does Eva belong?
Sometimes a romance (any book really, I suppose) is a bit like a bag of M&Ms – something enjoyable and wonderful all on its own (M&Ms are great!) but also something designed to be gobbled down and transient. Other times romance is designed to be savoured, much like a fine full-bodied red wine. I’m not really a wine drinker but my understanding is that a wine palate develops over time and with practice. I feel like that with my reading of Kearsley’s books and it is most obvious to me in The Rose Garden.
The truth is that The Rose Garden is desperately romantic. It has no explicit sex scenes and in fact, the romantic leads spend, perhaps a quarter or a third of the book together on the page. A lot of the romance is gleaned. Back in biblical times (shout out to Ruth), women wandered through already-harvested fields to find “gleanings” the leftover bits of grain which were not harvested. (Perhaps people still do this somewhere, I don’t know.) They had to keep a sharp eye out to find those valuable grains. Where this analogy falls down is in the suggestion that the bits that aren’t the romance are without value, like the leftover stalks of grain which can’t be used for food. In a Kearsley book, while there are definitely some big romantic moments, most of the romance is “buried” in amongst the rest of the story, sometimes in between the words, from subtext and context and other times in subtleties. The thing is, these little nuggets seem extra valuable precisely because they take a little “work” to find. I mentally take them out and look at them from every facet (sorry for the mixed metaphor!) and see what else I can learn. Almost inevitably, I find there is more to be appreciated than on first glance.
Kearsley most definitely writes romance, albeit it is best described as “novel with romantic elements” but they’re a different kind of romance to most of what I read and it takes a certain mindset to fully appreciate them I think; a willingness to sit with the story a little longer, not to race through or “gobble it down” but to search a little and to let the words and the concepts swirl around the palate a little longer to fully appreciate their effects.
I was wrong when I first reviewed The Rose Garden. It is not at all “light on” in the romance department. I just needed to learn to “glean” and having done so, I find, on every re-read, a new romantic nugget I missed the last time.