If you take a look at the historical fiction titles I read, you'll realize I tend to gravitate towards novels set in and around each of the World Wars. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because there are just so many of them written (and is that because people are interested or because it's easier to write about something so dramatic and relatively close in time?). Or perhaps there's just something about that time period that draws me in. Therefore, The Victory Garden was immediately intriguing. I had heard of victory gardens before so I was interested to see how Rhys Bowen weaved them into her novel. Overall I was a bit disappointed in this one but it provided yet another perspective of World War I so I'm glad to have read it.
Here's the synopsis:
As the Great War continues to take its toll, headstrong twenty-one-year-old Emily Bryce is determined to contribute to the war effort. She is convinced by a cheeky and handsome Australian pilot that she can do more, and it is not long before she falls in love with him and accepts his proposal of marriage.In terms of a historical novel where I'm learning what it would have been like for people living through WWI, The Victory Garden succeeded. Bowen hit on what the poor, the rich, the fighting, and the wounded had to go through. It wasn't particularly an in-depth look, of course, but I feel like she really got the feel of the time right.
When he is sent back to the front, Emily volunteers as a “land girl,” tending to the neglected grounds of a large Devonshire estate. It’s here that Emily discovers the long-forgotten journals of a medicine woman who devoted her life to her herbal garden. The journals inspire Emily, and in the wake of devastating news, they are her saving grace. Emily’s lover has not only died a hero but has left her terrified—and with child. Since no one knows that Emily was never married, she adopts the charade of a war widow.
As Emily learns more about the volatile power of healing with herbs, the found journals will bring her to the brink of disaster, but may open a path to her destiny.
Bowen was able to write this story in such a way that I really felt what Emily was going through. I was frustrated when she was, heartbroken when she was, and I was so proud of her for being strong and standing up for what she believed in - love and the war (at least I felt these things early on - but more on my issues with Emily later). She was determined to do her bit and couldn't understand why her parents wouldn't let her do something of importance. Yes, they had lost a son but their coddling of her was keeping a willing and able young woman from assisting with the war efforts.
But apart from that? I struggled with this book. Emily was pretty snobbish, even with all of her "why does it matter if he's a poor farmer from Australia?" talk about Robbie, her pilot beau. I actually wanted to throw the book across the room near-ish the end when she's talking with Lady Charlton, the old woman whose gardens Emily and her friends are tending. Lady Charlton is well off as was Emily - and her family - before she left home. I admit I can't remember the specifics and I didn't mark the page, but essentially Emily thinks that she wants to move back home/into a house with her childhood friend because she wants to be with her own kind - rich, "educated" people. I couldn't believe how shallow she was and how easily she seemed to be dismissing the amazing and loyal friends she had made while working as a land girl. And the implied HEA she got? Seemed a bit too perfect. Harrumph.
And as much as I liked that we got to see Emily working in different areas of the war efforts - as a land girl and tending gardens at large homes - the whole story felt a bit disjointed. It was also pretty slow paced.
All in all, The Victory Garden was not for me. Rhys Bowen didn't write a bad book, just one that I wasn't fully invested in. I think the idea was a good one but it got a bit lost in the actual execution.
*A copy of this novel was provided by the distributor, Thomas Allen & Son, in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*