Think of a lazy Saturday afternoon when you don’t have much going on. You start flipping through the tv channels and come across that hit movie from a couple of years ago that you never saw in the theater, but now, as you have nothing else to do, you lie down on the couch to watch, for what you know will be two hours of mediocrity, filled with stereotypical characters, impossible situations, yet which will provide you with a few genuine laughs and semi-suspenseful moments. The White Garden by Stephanie Barron is the literary equivalent of that movie.
Jo Bellamy is a 30-something gardener who’s been commissioned to recreate the famous white garden originally cultivated by Vita Sackville-West. A few months before she leaves for England to study the garden her beloved grandfather Jock commits suicide. In a crazy twist of fate, her grandfather’s death is connected to Sissinghurst, the home of V S-W and to the supposed suicide of Virginia Woolf, V S-W’s one-time lover. While in England, Jo unenthusiastically researches the garden. She also starts digging around to find out information about Jock’s time at Sissinghurst and happens upon a forgotten fragment of a diary written by Virginia Woolf. Enter Jo’s employer who is scheming to bed her, a sexy Sotheby’s employee, a beautiful, yet cruel English professor, and a madcap race ensues to discover the truth about Virginia Woolf and her death.
Like that afternoon film, this is extremely enjoyable in the moment, yet it is ultimately unsatisfying. I did truly enjoy the characterization, but the plot is so unbelievable that it had me gnashing my teeth. And as always when portraying real people in a fictional setting the author gambles on the result being believable, which in this case was only slightly successful. Read this if you are looking for an interesting take on Virginia Woolf, her husband Leonard, and the rest of the Bloomsbury set, or if you want a fast and amusing way to spend an afternoon.