“The Summer Country” by Lauren Willig refers to the island of Barbados, where it is summer all year long. The story is about three women, and from the beginning it alternates between 1812 and 1854. The story begins in 1854, when Emily Dawson and her cousin Adam travel to Barbados for different reasons. Adam is representing the family business now that his grandfather, Jonathan Fenty, has died, while Emily is traveling to visit Peverills, the sugar cane plantation that her grandfather left her in his will.
Emily and her companions first dine with Mr. Turner, a successful business acquaintance of her late grandfather. They are surprised when they realize he is dark-skinned, and his nephew is a doctor and surgeon educated in London and Edinburgh. Emily is mystified to find out that Peverills is a blackened ruin, completely destroyed by fire during a slave revolt, with fields left fallow since that time. Her brother and his wife Laura, who was Emily’s best friend, and Emily are invited to Beckles, the plantation that borders Peverills.
The story in 1812 begins with another visitor to Barbados from England, this one Charles Davenant, who was born on the island but sent to England for his education. His father has died, and as the eldest, he has returned, albeit unwillingly, to take over the plantation. His younger brother, Robert, is a dissolute young man who resents Charles’ return and his taking control of the plantation.
The stories alternate as Willig carefully weaves a plot much like a spider web, in which all the characters are connected, but the connections may not be obvious, and all is not revealed until the very end. The alternating narrative is executed flawlessly. Not only does Willig provide the place and month and year of each chapter, she seamlessly has the chapters flow together, even though they take place forty years apart.
For example, one chapter ends with, “I’ve been banging on his door for weeks now.” The next chapter, decades in the past, begins, “The banging on the door grew louder.” Willig manages to do this throughout the book, and while at first it’s disconcerting because of flowing language that would seem to keep the same story in the same time period continuing, the reader then realizes that the time and characters have changed. This technique, however, serves to emphasize that Willig is saying that the past and the present often overlap, and what happens in the past can be very pertinent and relevant to our present.
The other main characters are Mary Anne Beckles, the heir to the Beckles plantation, who is bedeviled by an evil uncle, and has a love/hate relationship with her slave and only friend, Jenny. Mary Anne is the only character who appears in both narratives as the story of the Davenant family and the Beckles family and those around them unfolds.
The research is thorough, and we learn about the history of the island and its demanding sugar cane crop. We learn about primitive medical care at that time and how, although slavery was abolished in England, the institution continued in the British holdings like Barbados. The distinctions between classes and races becomes an important part of the story as Emily tries to learn about the history of her family, her mother in particular. There is an incongruity in the dates of her grandfather’s marriage and the birth of her mother that she feels compelled to figure out.
In both time periods, marriages are considered and pushed by those who would join the two plantations. We are presented with the question as to whether a slave can ever truly agree to a relationship with a white person since he or she is not free. Do you need to be free to give consent? Then there are issues of race and those who can pass for white although they are not.
The characters are drawn with much attention to both physical traits and character, and readers feel the plight of some who are in terrible situations. As the novel progresses and the different stories become clearer and clearer, the reader will find it more and more difficult to put the book down. How does it end? What does Emily find out? Who really died in the fire at Peverills?
Fans of historical fiction will really enjoy this look into life in the islands during Victorian times. There’s romance and mystery as well, making “The Summer Country” a book that will appeal to a wide range of readers. It’s a hefty novel at almost 450 pages, but the characters and the events are all necessary to make this fascinating story complete.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by William Morrow, the publisher, for review purposes.