The Sea Garden (by Marcia Willett)

It's many years since I first started reading novels by Marcia Willett. And while I found some of her earlier ones a little fluffy, I enjoyed her characters and also the way she tells a good story. There were sufficient excellent novels amongst them that I have continued adding each new one to my wishlist as it's published, and was delighted to receive this one as a gift last Christmas.

'The Sea Garden' is primarily the story of Jess, who has just finished university, and has won a prestigious art prize which gives her the opportunity of a year off. In meeting Kate - the widow of the prize originator - she discovers a new friend; circumstances conspire and before long she herself staying in a village in Devon for a while, where she meets a large number of connected people, and feels herself oddly at home.

One of the people she meets is the elderly Rowena, who is surprisingly excited at the thought of meeting Jess. She who turns out to look remarkably like her grandmother Juliet did when she was young. It seems that there may be another connection, too. Meanwhile there are marriage problems for Kate's son Guy and his wife Gemma, who is the daughter of Kate' best friend Cass...

While I always enjoy books by Marcia Willett, I sometimes find her huge cast of characters to be rather confusing. Most of the ones in this book are old friends from previous novels; I certainly recognised Kate and Cass, Guy and Gemma, and various others who recur with a new set of problems. I was particularly taken with the wealthy but wise and caring Oliver, Gemma's brother. But it's been a long time since I last read some of the earlier novels, and there's no way I can keep them all in my head. I don't think there's any way it would make sense to someone who was new to this author.

Moreover, this book starts in a rather frustrating way. Other than Jess's story, a lot of it seems to be a re-hash of parts of several other books, as different people think about incidents - happy or sad - in their pasts. Some of this served as a useful reminder of who was whom, other parts seemed irrelevant. I never did entirely grasp the significance of the 'sea garden', but then I'm not very good at reading descriptions.

As ever, Marcia Willetts tells a good story, albeit somewhat slow to get going. Still, it wasn't long before I found myself caught up in Jess's narrative, and also rooting for Guy and Gemma. I skimmed parts about boats or the navy - these books are set in a world far removed from my own - and tried to ignore the assumptions about boarding schools which always annoy me slightly. Children always seem to be tucked out of the way, only appearing for 'exeats', always cheerful and likeable; decidedly two-dimensional.

I had planned to read this at bedtimes over a couple of weeks, but found myself reading for considerably longer than I had intended, and then finished it in just a few days. Towards the end it became much more interesting, and quite difficult to put down; I found the ending nicely satisfying.

Not recommended as an introduction to Marcia Willett, but a pleasant story for anyone who has read some of her earlier novels and recognises (at least) the names of Cass and Kate. Entirely suitable for anybody with no bad language, no violence, and only hints of intimacy and affairs.

Available in paperback or for the Kindle on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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