The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley
Published: 2011, Sourcebooks
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Source: Personal ebook
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble
There was something about this remote western corner of Britain that captured the soul and refused to let go, something ancient and wild in the moors and black cliffs and the voice of the sea that spoke always of something unseen and enchanted.
The Rose Garden was an impulse buy for me, I'll admit it. I saw it available on my Kindle for a discounted price and, without knowing anything about the author and little more about the book than that it was a historical romance that featured time travel, I decided to buy it. I read it as a way to vary my reading choices and read something catered towards a more adult audience, but upon finishing it I was more than ready to start making a dent in the rather large pile of YA books I had to read. I suppose this describes my overall feelings towards the book: it kept me vaguely interested as I was reading it, but I found it ultimately didn't make much of an impact on me.
When Katrina, a famous Hollywood actress, dies a few months after contracting a debilitating sickness, her younger sister Eva is at a loss. It falls upon Eva, not upon Katrina's husband, to scatter Katrina's remnants wherever her sister felt most happy. Eva decides that this should be the town of Polgelly in Cornwall, where she and Katrina spent their childhood summers. While there, Eva stays at the Trelowarth house and becomes reacquainted with the Hallett family, Mark, Susan, and Claire.
While at Trelowarth, Eva tries to find a sense of purpose in her life. She's quit her PR job in California; she only moved there to be close to Katrina anyway, and with Katrina dead Eva has no remaining family left alive. Eva agrees to help with the publicity of Susan and Mark's latest venture: a tearoom and rose garden tourist attraction on Trelowarth's lands. It's something for her to do as she ponders the next steps in her life. While at Trelowarth, however, Eva keeps seeing images of paths that are not there, and people who do not exist. Soon enough she finds out that she possesses the ability to travel back and forth between the Polgelly of her present day and the Polgelly of the eighteenth century.
Perhaps you'd think that The Rose Garden is about Eva coming to terms with her sister's death and regaining a sense of direction in her life once more as she struggles with these new time-traveling abilities. That would make sense, based on the novel's set-up. Unfortunately, that's not truly what The Rose Garden is about. While Eva does start finding things worth living for once again, this newfound purpose comes in the form of Daniel Butler, a eighteenth-century man, rather than any true self-reflection on Eva's part. I went into the story expecting a romance, and somehow it managed to overwhelm and underwhelm me at the same time. In many ways, the romance took the place of Eva's personal development. It also, however, felt kind of bland. I never truly understood the draw that Eva and Daniel had to one another, and their actions did nothing to convince me of the legitimacy of their feelings. If the romance is supposed to be the central aspect of this novel, then I'd rather have seen Kearsely go all-out in her portrayal of it.
The time travel aspect of the plot had so much promise, but I also felt like that did not quite live up to its full potential. Why does Eva possess this ability? Why does she only travel to one specific time period? I still can't answer these questions after finishing the novel, but, then again, neither can Eva. It appears that Treloworth is what connects the past and the future, which is an interesting concept in and of itself. At one point Susan and Claire reveal that Treloworth is situated around ley lines, and that perhaps those give the estate a certain mystical power. I prefer having answers to questions about such a major aspect of the plot, but I am willing to pass that by and concede that perhaps Eva's time-traveling ability simply is. What I cannot ignore, however, is how time travel did not make sense in the context of the seventeenth-century Britain that Eva kept appearing in. Besides initial shock and confusion, past residents of Treloworth Fergal O'Cleary and Daniel Butler pretty much took Eva's random appearances in stride. And Eva later makes a point how neither of them really pry her about the future.
Through both Susan's attention to the tea house and Eva's time travels, The Rose Garden does have a big emphasis on the history of Cornwall, which I enjoyed. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres for a reason; I want to learn what life was like for people in other lands and during other time periods. Usually when reading a work of historical fiction, I tend to scour Wikipedia's archives for more information about the historical people and their time period. I haven't done that yet for eighteenth-century Cornwall, and I can't help but feel as though that's because I was not as invested in the historical time period presented here. There are interesting aspects presented, but for the most part Eva is in the dark, and I just could not muster the desire as the reader to distance myself from her cluelessness.
For all my criticisms, I did find some value within the pages of The Rose Garden. Although it literally took up until the last few pages of the novel for the reader to have even an inkling of understanding about Eva's time traveling, Eva does spent a large percentage of the novel examining the greater implications of time travel, as well as questions of morality and ethics. She is faced with the unique dilemma of knowing what the future holds for Daniel, Fergal, and supporters of the rebellion against Queen Anne's successor George I. Can she tell them what she knows? Or, the better question here, should she? I love it when a story makes me really think about broader conflicts, and The Rose Garden certainly fulfills that need.
The story also ends on a satisfying note. Not all answers are given, not everything is certain, but it was enough. I also love my happy endings.
Overall, I found The Rose Garden to be a quiet and contemplative sort of book, full of beautiful prose and thought-provoking questions. Where I become slightly less satisfied with the story was in the execution of the time travel and historical aspects. Still, for someone not as picky as me on those aspects, I could see this story being a satisfactory few hours of historical fiction escapism.