REVIEW of The Summer Country by Lauren Willig

Summer CountryWhen Emily Dawson’s grandfather dies, he leaves her a plantation named Peverills on the faraway island of Barbados. Traveling to the land of eternal summer, Emily discovers that her new inheritance burned down years ago in a slave revolt. Unsure whether to sell the place or find a way to salvage it and cultivate sugar once again, Emily finds the neighboring Davenant family eager to take her under their wing. The iron-willed Mary Anne Davenant seems determined to connect Emily with her own grandson so that the properties can be combined. At the same time, Emily befriends Dr. Braithwaite, a former slave turned physician who provides his services to the poor for free.

As Emily uncovers more about the family that lived at Peverills, she discovers that the family secrets among the deceased Davenant brothers have repercussions that echo across the generations. Her grandfather’s role as bookkeeper on the plantation involved a great deal more than just financial recordkeeping, and Emily’s own past is not what it seems.

I’m really falling in love with the way that Lauren Willig does dual narrative novels. The connections she weaves between the two time periods are an aesthetic and thematic marvel. This story switches between the star-cross’d love affair of Charles Davenant and a slave woman named Jenny in the early 1800s and Emily’s visit to Barbados in the Victorian era of the 1850s. Both threads of the story were captivating, which is not always the case in these types of novels. The characterization of Mary Anne Davenant was superb. I particularly liked how we could feel sympathetic to her own plight as a young woman in the earlier thread but also see how she was willing to use others without compunction to achieve her own goals.

The institution of slavery in Barbados is deftly portrayed, including the absolute power a slave owner had over the fate of his “property.” Emily’s sheltered experience in England as a crusader for women’s rights does not prepare her for the experiences of those like Dr. Braithwaite who experienced no rights before abolition. The relationship between Emily and Dr. Braithwaite grows as she assists him in nursing cholera patients, and I enjoyed how Willig used this to mirror the interracial relationship of the earlier story. Recommended.

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