The Summer Country by Lauren Willig. New York: William Morrow, 2019, 480 pages.
A multi-generational novel of love, rebellion, and sugar in colonial Barbados.
In 1854, Emily Dawson receives a surprise inheritance in her beloved grandfather’s will, Peverills, a sugar plantation in Barbados. A plantation that no one knew that he owned. Emily journeys from Bristol to Barbados to find Peverills a husk of its former glory, a result of the destruction wrought in the slave rebellion of 1816. Why would her grandfather leave her such an inheritance?
Emily soon meets her neighbors, the Davenants. They issue a surprising offer of an indefinite stay in their home while Emily is introduced to local society. The invitation is not merely neighborly; the Davenants have a strong interest in obtaining Peverills and in keeping the tangled history of both plantations a secret.
The story that Emily slowly uncovers starts in 1812. Slavery is still being practiced, though there are rumors of change coming. Charles Davenant has returned from England to run his family’s estate, Peverills. His brother soon marries heiress Mary Anne Beckles, owner of the neighboring plantation. And Charles begins a secret passionate affair with Mary Anne’s maid and slave, Jenny. It is not long before both Mary Anne and Jenny are expecting their first child. One child will grow up to inherit a wealthy estate and the other is doomed to be born a slave. Charles and Jenny make a desperate choice to protect their child. Their dreams of a future life together far from Barbados collides with harsh reality on the night of the slave rebellion.
Emily struggles with uncertainty over her own future as she learns more about the events of forty years past. Will she sell the land and return to familiar England, or will she create her own life in this summer country?
The strong emotions and high stakes present in this novel resulted in a page turner. The reader will enjoy discovering all of the hidden family connections that will result in a satisfying ending as the two storylines are finally merged.
Almost as arresting as the other characters is the island of Barbados. The bustle of the port city of Bridgetown and the countryside dotted with sugar plantations are both explored. The tropical country is beautiful, but has a dark undertone of slavery and disease cause by unhealthy living conditions. Willig does not shy away from showing both sides, making this a layered story.
Lauren Willig is an author to watch in the world of historical fiction. She is well known for her Pink Carnation series that were a delightful hybrid of romance and Napoleonic era spycraft. Her more recent stand-alone novels have also proved to be rich in detail and captivating characters, similar to the works of Beatriz Williams or Tracy Chevalier. This novel and her earlier works deserve a place on everyone’s to-be-read list!
Amanda Gramley is the Adult Programming Coordinator with the Alamance County Public Libraries. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.