I chose this book from the stack after reading writing jane austen because Aston includes a scene in Austen’s ancestral home in which her protagonist looks mournfully at the small table in the common room at which Austen wrote and wishes that she’d had a room of her own. The contrast between Aston’s tale of literary fun and Barron’s literary mystery is stark and, unfortunately, Aston is left looking like an amateur.
Jo Bellamy, who runs her own landscaping business, is in England studying Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden for her financier/lady’s man client, Graydon Westlake and his third wife, Alicia. Jo’s English gardener grandfather has recently committed suicide, just after Jo told him about her trip to England, in fact, and Jo hopes to find some answers to his death while she studies the garden. The Sissinghurst head gardener, Imogen Cantwell, helps Jo look for documents relating to her grandfather, who worked at Sissinghurst as a teenager, and they find a notebook with his name on it, but in the handwriting of Virginia Woolf dated the day after her suicide. Literary mystery ensues. Is the notebook real? Are the dates correct? If so, how could that be? What role did Jo’s grandfather play that put his name on Woolf’s notebook?
In her quest to answer these questions, Jo encounters Peter LLewellyn, a manuscript expert at Sotheby’s, as well as his ex-wife, Margaux Strand, Oxford don and Woolf expert. When Margaux takes off with the notebook, Peter and Jo are led on a merry chase across England and through the pasts of Woolf, Sackville-West and the men who surrounded them. The tale begins and ends in the White Garden and offers solutions to the unanswered question of suicide.
Barron’s characters are lively and believable, even if the idea of a feminist femme fatale scholar does not meet with my own experience, and the plot is well-paced and satisfying. Best of all, Barron’s dip into the lives of Woolf and Sackville-West made me want to pick up some of their writing and see who they were for myself.
Having chosen this book because of a Woolf reference in the book about Jane Austen, it was surprising to see that Barron is well known for having written a series of Jane Austen mysteries. Coincidence or a vital part of a bigger plot line?