In Julia Kelly’s novel, The Last Garden in England, the gardens at Highbury House serve as the setting for four different women finding love, a home, and beauty in three different time periods. Emma, in our time, has been hired to restore the gardens to their original state. During World War II, Beth and Diana find people to love. And in 1907, Venetia designs a series of gardens for the wealthy Melcourts. This book was like a bouquet, a spray of characters arranged to satisfy readers who love English country houses and unexpected love.
So much happens in this book that I can’t summarize it other than in broad strokes. The Last Garden in England is absolutely the kind of book that you have to just inhale, because you’ll want to know what happens to all the characters. All of the women in this book—Emma, Venetia, Diana, and Beth—share qualities that put me instantly on their side and had me rooting for their happiness. All of them are deeply independent, the kind of women who are used to going it alone against all challenges so that they can live the kind of life they want. Emma and Venetia are gardeners and won’t let anything stand in their way. Beth wants a homey life where she can put down roots. Diana wants to be the mistress of her own estate, free from the interference of in-laws and government dictates about how she can use her house and property. All of them are deeply caring and nurturing—although some of the women in this book would argue that they’re not good with anything other than plants. And all of these women are characters I’d love to make friends with.
All of the plotlines throw up challenges for the women to deal with. Some of the challenges are heart-breaking, but the hope that everything will turn out alright (and it does!) kept me rapidly turning the pages. Kelly never lets things get too easy for her characters, which makes all the conclusions feel earned. I love a happily ever after as much as the next reader, but I always feel a bit cheated if that ending arrives as a result of too many coincidences or if characters have to suddenly go against type. When that happens, I always wonder if the happy ending last past the honeymoon phase.
A lot of the books I read are grim and contain elements that I feel I have to warn other readers about when I recommend them. For me, The Last Garden in England is one of the rare books I would hand to any reader looking for a good read without any word of warning. As such, I think The Last Garden in England is an excellent choice after this annus horribilis. Characters we care about grow and find genuine happiness in beautiful gardens that will have the green thumbs among us writing down species names and googling pictures of plants. It is the best comfort book I’ve read in a long time.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.