Wednesday, May 5, 2010

May Book Review: The White Garden

"You should have white flowers here.  Nothing else.  They'd rise in the dark like fairy lamps, lighting your way to bed . . . White clematis. White lavender, white agapanthus, white double-primroses. White anemones . . . "

--from The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf  by Stephanie Barron

Gardeners who pick up The White Garden without reading the book jacket will be sorely disappointed that this is not a book about the famed gardens at Sissinghurst Castle.  But mystery lovers, particularly if they also happen to be gardeners, will thoroughly enjoy this novel of literary suspense.

 Sissinghurst castle, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Landscape designer Jo Bellamy has been sent to Sissinghurst to study the famous White Garden created by Vita Sackville-West in order to duplicate it for her client back in the Hamptons. Jo has another reason for being eager to visit the area--her grandfather had lived nearby, and she hopes to discover some clue in his past to explain his recent suicide.  His death had come as a complete shock to Jo and her grandmother, and the note he left behind at his death only compounded the mystery.

In searching through old record books of the garden at Sissinghurst, Jo finds a diary with a possible connection to her grandfather, but even more surprisingly, it is a diary that may have been written by Virginia Woolf, days after she was believed to have killed herself!

Jo borrows the diary in order to authenticate it and ultimately discover some information to explain her grandfather's mysterious final note.   In the process the diary is stolen, and Jo finds herself on a wild journey across the English countryside searching for the missing diary and for the truth about Woolf's final days. 

Not much white in my garden unless you count the white blooms of the crabapple in early spring.
While Jo eventually discovers the answers to both Woolf's death and her grandfather's suicide,  the answers are not particularly satisfying to the reader.  Jo must also deal with her feelings about her married employer, Gray Westlake, who follows her to England. A romance with a new acquaintance further confuses her.  The romantic subplots are not very well-developed, and I thought they distracted from the main plot.  But both the weak romantic scenes and the ambiguous resolution of the conflict can be forgiven, because the rest of the novel is an intriguing story that moves along at a fast pace.

My white 'Vanilla Cream' tulips

Excerpts of the supposed Woolf diary are interspersed with the narrative, which creates much of the intrigue. According to most biographies of her, Virginia Woolf, whose writing was influential in the development of the 20th century novel, suffered from depression most of her adult life and on March 28, 1941 filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the river Ouse near her home.  Barron, the author of the series of Jane Austen mysteries (none of which I've read--yet), takes liberties with the historical account for a plausible and entertaining story. 

My favorite of all the tulips, 'Angelique' looks almost white, but is tinged with pale pink.

When I went to to check out some background on the author, I found mixed reviews of The White Garden.  But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and what's more, it prompted me to do some further research.  I knew very little about Virginia Woolf, having read only a few of her short stories.  Vita Sackville-West, author and creator of the "White Garden," was only a vague name encountered somewhere in my previous reading.  Learning more about these two influential literary figures--and rather scandalous women for their time--proved to be very entertaining.  And no doubt, long-time gardeners would be shocked to know that I had never heard of the "White Garden" or of Sissinghurst before!  Reading about the story of Sissinghurst online and viewing  images of the famous gardens has been another unexpected pleasant benefit of picking up Stephanie Barron's The White Garden on a whim at the library one day.

Be sure to check out other book reviews at this month's meeting of the Book Review Club hosted by Barrie Summy.

All book reviews posted here are purely at the whim of this blogger; no compensation of any kind has been received for this review. 

I'm off to visit my youngest daughter for a few days, so blog posting and reading will be limited for awhile.  I haven't seen her since August, so I know you'll understand how excited I am!


  1. A lovely review, Rose, it does sound an interesting book...I have such a large pile of books waiting to be read!

    Yes, they were rather outrageous women weren't they? I have read some Woolf novels in the past but they are not among my favourites and I have to admit I can't remember much about them.

    Sissinghurst is much visited although I have never been there as it is quite a distance from us. It is managed by the National Trust.

    Lovely photos again, I really do like your beautiful 'Angelique'!

    Have a wonderful time with your daughter.

  2. Sounds like an interesting read Rose. Love the white blooms.

  3. Thanks for a well written review of what sounds like an intriguing book. Your Angelique tulip is so almost looks like a peony.

  4. It sounds intriguing. I love a good mystery. Wonderful shots of white to demonstrate too. Spring is so awesome!

  5. Hi Rose, like you I learned about the famous 'white garden' from British mystery novels:) Frankly when I first read about this huge, all white garden, it sounded rather boring. Maybe some day we will have an opportunity to see it and decide for ourselves.

    It's interesting how historical characters are popping up in fictional works. Everyone from Beatrix Potter to Virgina Woolf to Elvis Presley. I took a peek at Barry Summy's page and even found Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer.

    Thanks for the recommendation. I'm hopelessly addicted to mystery novels.

  6. Those pictures are lovely. Thanks for including them.

  7. Cool: gardens, literary suspense and Virginia Woolf! I love how you added your own white floral accents and analyzed the story for strengths and weaknesses. Excellent review! I’m intrigued.

  8. Fabulous review as always Rose.

    I live around 15 minutes drive from Sissinghurst. I am lucky....I have many famous gardens close to home.

    Your tulip'angelique' is just beautiful Rose. I have seen her on several other blogs and plan to plant some in the autumn.

    Do have a lovely trip.......and travel safely.

  9. Rose, I love white flowers and your Angelique tulip is gorgeous. The book sounds like a good read - I'm familiar with Vita Sackville-West as one of my daughters gave me a beautiful edition of one of her traveling journals. Thanks for the great review!

  10. Rose, you know how I love a good mystery. And learning about the white garden and Sissinghurst sounds very interesting. Sub plots don't always work and I think distract more than not. You have made this sound very intriguing and I shall look for it.

    Have a great time, see lots, take photos and notes so you can tell me all about your trip when you get back. Say hi to youngest daughter, too!

  11. I loved that first quote! And the book sounds very intriguing. Great additions with the photos, and how fun that you further explored some history after reading the book.

    Great review!

  12. Love the pics and review! At first I thought it was a book about gardens. :) Sounds like a great suspense novel!

    Don't you just love finding treasures at the library? :) Happy Wednesday!

  13. What a very interesting review! I do love a book with a strong mystery. Your photos were a great addition. Thank you! And have fun with your daughter.

  14. What perfect timing... I was over at a book review blog earlier this a.m. hoping to find a good book suggestion to no avail. This one sounds ideal. I don't have a lot of white in my garden but I do think a pure white garden would be absolutely stunning!

  15. very pretty white flowers specially the tulips.

  16. Interesting and informative book review. I'm partial to white flowers and plan to add more to our flower beds.

    Have a lovely Mother's Day and a wonderful visit with your daughter.


  17. Hello Rose I planted lots of white annuals in my garden last year..they really do rise in the dark like fairy lamps!!
    I adore your white tulips! I too have beautiful Angeliques!
    Wishing you a Happy Mother's Day!

  18. Sounds good. There's was a short-lived British TV show in the '90s, that I've just discovered, Rosemary & Thyme, about mystery-solving gardeners. :)

  19. I love your white tulips Rose. Lovely! Someday I'll make it to Sissinghurst.

  20. I would love a white garden, or at least as a part of the whole. It would look too clean and sterile to have everything white, and I definitely couldn't have that here:) The novel sounds like it would be a good one to read during the summer as a respite from the regular garden chores in the heat. White is about the coolest color I can think of. Thanks for a great review, Rose. Did you ever study Woolf's essays? I like them better than most of her fiction. She was quite the naturalist and very clever at using natural phenomena to prove a point. "The Mark on the Wall" is one of my favorites.


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