by Barbara Michaels
I listened to this on audio read by the great Barbara Rosenblat. I had read the story many years ago and may have read it more than once. It was Barbara Michaels’s last novel under this pseudonym. I would give the story a 3, but Barbara R.’s reading a 5. I loved the heroine, but in the end, the plot was kind of all over the place. Although Heather, our funny, caustic, and indomitable heroine ends up with the guy I wanted her to, I’m not sure how it happened exactly. She seemed to be going in another surprising direction, and it wasn’t until the end that that attraction was explained, and it kind of made sense. I was happy and even relieved at the pivot.
American school teacher Heather Tradescant is touring the gardens of England in honor of her gentle scholarly father. They had planned the pilgrimage together, but he has since died in an automobile accident. She arrives at what was to be the highlight of their tour, the estate of Troyton House, the site of a famous 17th-century garden long since grown over and all but vanished. When she is locked out of the grounds, Heather being Heather forges through a thick overgrown hedge which mysteriously seems almost alive and malevolent. She bursts through, scratched and bloody, and lands at the feet of the famous and fabulously wealthy Mr. Karim, the current owner. To her surprise and incredulity, he enlists her amateur aid in restoring the important garden. He learned her last name, Tradescant, is coincidentally (?) the same as the original designer. Also, he likes her because, unlike everyone else in the world, she refuses to be bossed or bullied and gives as good as she gets. She is a breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately not much restoration is accomplished because Heather is too busy dealing with local witches, mysterious fogs, trying to rediscover how she got through the impenetrable hedge in the first place, the jealous wife of the former owner of the estate, and her spoiled little boy who has all of the makings of a future serial killer with a history of pyromania to boot. Not to mention being the romantic target of two attractive men despite the fact that she is just average looking with an overweight though athletic build. The third man in the picture is Mr. Karim’s sarcastic grouchy son who is a university professor working on a book and doesn’t seem to like her at all.
There is really not much of a plot and not even a mystery to solve unless you count why Mr. Karim is so hateful to his son. Bobby, the future serial killer, disappears and is feared dead but that is a matter for the police and his unhappy parents and is not any of Heather’s business. Not that anyone misses the horrid child anyway. Heather is poisoned and has two other exciting escapes at the end. The story ends with a shocking development but the reasons behind it all didn’t really make a lot of sense.
This is the last of a long line of Barbara Michaels novels, and she might have been a little tired. She was also keeping up with her yearly and very popular Amelia Peabody adventures under “Elizabeth Peters,” and an occasional Jacqueline Kirby or Vicky Bliss thrown in. Most of her earlier “Barbara Michaels” books were true Gothics which featured haunted houses, witchcraft, and other paranormal activities: Werewolves, fairies, timeslips, and possession included. The latter novels are immersed in fascinating and arcane aspects of various professional and hobbyist pursuits. This one is steeped in the lore of formal gardens and mazes with a healthy dose of witchcraft and ancient curses. Previous books have also tackled vintage fashion, quilting folklore, antique jewelry, old rose cultivation, deciphering damaged manuscripts, and archeology. Barbara Michaels’s scholarly and feminist approach shines throughout all of them. To qualify as “Romantic suspense” each has a sometimes perfunctory sometimes charming romance thrown into the mix. I always loved her Barbara Michaels novels having grown a little weary of Amelia Peabody over the years. I have learned a lot from her books and this one was no exception.