"The White Garden": Book Review by Danica Rice

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Greetings, DSTN Arts aficionados!  Danica Rice here, and having just completed my interview this morning with Rogan Shannon, I was in the mood to review the book I read last night, called “The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf”. This book was written by Stephanie Barron and published in 2009.

This book is best described as a historical fiction, taking liberties with a variety of historical accounts. I will be the first to admit that I do not have very much knowledge about Virginia Woolf except for the book I read of hers in high school AP English, and the well-known fact that she walked into the river with stones in her pockets and drowned.  So, given this scarce knowledge, I didn’t know much about what to expect, other than that the book was about her, somehow, and about a landscape designer/gardener. Below is the synopsis of the book, copied directly from the back cover, and then I will elaborate with my own thoughts, having just finished the book last night.

“Six decades after Virginia Woolf’s death, landscape designer Jo Bellamy has come to Sissinghurst Castle for two reasons: to study the celebrated White Garden created by Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West and to recover from the terribl wound of her grandfather’s unexplained suicide. In the shadow of one of England’s most famous castles, Jo makes a shocking find: Woolf’s last diary, its first entry dated the day after she allegedly killed herself.  If authenticated, Jo’s discovery could shatter everything historians believe about Woolf’s final hours. But when the Woolf diary is suddenly stolen, Jo’s quest to uncover the truth will lead her on a perilous journey into the tumultuous inner life of a literary icon whose connection to the White Garden ultimately proved devastating. Rich with historical detail, The White Garden is an enthralling novel of literary suspense that explores the many ways the past haunts the present—and the dark secrets that lurk beneath the surface of the most carefully tended garden.”

First of all, let us revisit why I chose this book to purchase, and read. I bought it from The Book Bin in Salem, Oregon (though I admittedly don’t remember doing so, but it must be true as it has a sticker with “The Book Bin” on the front cover, as well as a bookmark in its pages from The Book Bin). The appeal is obviously that it is a fictional account of a writer that I don’t know very well, but I love any kind of historical fiction with writers’ involvement. That, combined with the fact that this novel takes place in a garden, drew my attention.  I have always loved gardens and the concept of gardening.  Anyway, Virginia Woolf has always been a mysterious character in literary history, and one which is surrounded by intrigue, so I wanted to learn more about her and to enjoy a good story, naturally!

The protagonist, Jo Bellamy, is very headstrong, yet in a vulnerable place in her life, as she has just lost her grandfather to suicide, the very day after she had told him (a lifelong gardener) about her good fortune to visit and replicate the well-known White Garden, best known for being the home of Vita Sackville-West, former lover of Virginia Woolf.  Initially her intent is to be there for work, but when her grandmother shares with her information from the scene of her grandfather’s suicide, she begins to wonder, does some research on her own time, finds out that her grandfather had once worked at Sissinghurst, and asking the Head Gardener for assistance, finds a journal with her grandfather’s name on it, with what appears to be Virginia Woolf’s handwriting. There is much mystery involved, so she decides to ask for help from somebody at a local auction house, while in England.  She arranges to meet a gentleman, a manuscript expert, named Peter Llewellyn, purely for verification, and at first, his inclination is to dismiss it as the dates don’t align with what is known about Virginia’s life, specifically the fact that the date of the first entry occurs one day AFTER Virginia Woolf’s widely-publicized death by suicide.  One thing leads to another, and recognizing that things don’t seem to add up, Peter takes Jo to visit a well-known Woolf expert.  The book goes missing in action when the Woolf expert absconds with it, and leaves Jo in the lurch, having promised its return to Sissinghurst the following day.  This leaves Jo and Peter no choice but to try to follow the Woolf expert’s footsteps, across the country to various locations well known to the Woolf family and friends.  I won’t tell you what happens, but they go through quite a lot to recover the book, not to mention recover missing elements which fall into place to tell the story of what REALLY happened to Virginia Woolf after she had been announced dead, but clearly wasn’t. 

I liked this book because it gave a lot of historical background, and married the two worlds of the modern day literary sleuths and that of the 1940’s world of Sissinghurst and because it’s a family story for Jo, it adds an extra layer of interest.  The story was not as tidily summed up as I’d like, but it was a good story, and especially if you are interested in historical figures with a twist of fiction thrown into the mix, along with a bit of “well, what if….?” Then you will enjoy this book!  Personally, I would give it a 3.25 out of 5 stars, mostly because I feel like the ending was a bit jumbled and could have been handled better. I particularly enjoyed the characters though, and this definitely made me want to read more about Virginia Woolf’s life, to see how much of this was based in historical fact, and how much of it was fictional. In fact, I was so intrigued that I purchased Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, image below.

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How does “The White Garden” look to you?  Good? Read it, and let me know what you think in the comments below!

Danica Rice