Huge thanks to Del Rey Books for inviting me to join the blog tour and sending me a gifted copy of the book! I was so excited to read The Winter Garden by Alexandra Bell, and it did not disappoint!
Welcome to the Winter Garden. Open only at 13 o’clock.
You are invited to enter an unusual competition.
I am looking for the most magical, spectacular, remarkable pleasure garden this world has to offer.
On the night her mother dies, 8-year-old Beatrice receives an invitation to the mysterious Winter Garden. A place of wonder and magic, filled with all manner of strange and spectacular flora and fauna, the garden is her solace every night for seven days. But when the garden disappears, and no one believes her story, Beatrice is left to wonder if it were truly real.
Eighteen years later, on the eve of her wedding to a man her late father approved of but she does not love, Beatrice makes the decision to throw off the expectations of Victorian English society and search for the garden. But when both she and her closest friend, Rosa, receive invitations to compete to create spectacular pleasure gardens – with the prize being one wish from the last of the Winter Garden’s magic – she realises she may be closer to finding it than she ever imagined.
Now all she has to do is win.
I really loved The Winter Garden. I’d read a couple of Alex Bell’s YA/Middle Grade books, so I knew I liked her writing, but this was on a whole other scale. It’s one of those books that slowly unfurls its plots and characters in such a way that you get sucked in immediately. The Winter Garden itself is truly magical, and I shared Beatrice’s wonder as she discovered it as an 8 year old whose mother had just died. It also made perfect sense to me that once she had the opportunity to go searching for it as an adult, she would do so. Who wouldn’t want to revisit such a magical place, especially if you’re constantly being judged for being different in your usual world?
Beatrice as an adult, Victorian woman is such a great character. She bucks so many Victorian trends – she won’t marry, she wants to live independently, she loves science and she wants to explore the world – but in other ways she’s still so bound by society’s rules. She can’t stop herself from treating James, who was her only friend as a child, as a servant because he’s of a lower class than she is, and she is abominably rude to him multiple times as a result. She judges her friend Rosa for being American, new money and searching for a marriage which will bring her a title, without realising how that will bring Rosa a security she’s never had before – and one Beatrice has never needed. It’s fair to say that Beatrice is not necessarily always a nice person. But it’s still a joy to watch her find herself, firstly on her wedding day, then in her travels and finally as she designs her garden.
All the way through those adventures though, many of which we learn about through letters, there was a part of me that desperately wanted Beatrice to come home and rescue Rosa, who is trapped in the most terrible of marriages. Even as Rosa chases the thing she wants more than almost anything else, I was silently screaming not him! Don’t pick him! (Trying to review this book without spoilers is HARD.) It’s really difficult to see the cheerful, vibrant Rosa we first meet on Beatrice’s wedding day start changing into someone else, someone who yearns for escape. She never completely loses herself, and she comes up with the perfect way to keep her husband away from her, but she’s never that carefree young woman we first saw. The character development throughout the book is spot on, and I also liked the way it looked at mental health and the way women were so often dismissed as hysterical.
There is a plot, but it’s almost secondary to the characters, which I have to be honest, I always love in a book. We follow both these women’s stories until the fateful invitations to design a garden arrive. I loved this part of the book, maybe more than the rest, because both Beatrice and Rosa have their own reasons for wanting to win that wish and it was really hard to know who to root for sometimes. And the gardens they design are magnificent. It’s never really mentioned how magic must be at the heart of so much of their gardens, even by the visitors to them, and yet it’s also made clear at the very beginning of the book that no-one believes Beatrice’s stories of the Winter Garden because they’re so fantastical. I absolutely want to actually visit all three gardens though, and ride the golden horse on the carousel and maybe even eat a plum of regret.
The Winter Garden is honestly a book that will stay with me for a long time. It’s truly magical, and while I’ve seen a lot of places say it’s like The Night Circus, I will go one step further and say it’s better. I really, properly, loved it, and Beatrice, and Rosa and James. It doesn’t scream and shout for attention, but manages to grab it anyway, and it’s perfect for reading in the dead of winter, wrapped up warm in front of a fire. I highly recommend that you get yourself a copy!
The Winter Garden is published by Del Rey and out 2nd September. I was gifted a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.