The Summer Country by Lauren Willig: Review

by Heather Caliendo

Editorial note: I received a copy of The Summer Country in exchange for a review. 

The Summer Country by Lauren Willig is a beautifully written historical fiction novel set in colonial Barbados. Spend some time with this novel that is full of rich historical details.

I love history, which is why I got a history minor. But I was disheartened to read the other day that fewer people are majoring in history. More often than not, people tell me they’re not that interested in historical events. I could write a 1,000 word essay on why that’s part of the reason we, as a society, make the same mistakes over and over but this is a book blog so I’ll spare you all my rant! However, this is one reason why books like The Summer Country are absolutely crucial to society. For instance, I was not familiar at all with the history of Barbados. It’s guaranteed when you read this book, you will learn so much. While history tends to focus on men, one of the best aspects of historical fiction is when they give a voice to the women of past eras.

The Summer Country is a story about lost love, lies, jealousy and rebellion set in colonial Barbados. Let’s take a closer look at this novel.

Two timelines

The story starts in February 1854 in Barbados. After her grandfather dies, Emily Dawson receives an unexpected inheritance: Peverills, a sugar plantation in Barbados—a plantation her grandfather never told anyone he owned.

When Emily accompanies her cousin and his new wife to Barbados, she finds Peverills a burnt-out shell, reduced to ruins in 1816, when a rising of enslaved people sent the island up in flames. Emily embarks on a journey to find out her family’s connection to Peverills and where she truly belongs.

The other timeline starts in 1812 Barbados where we meet Charles Davenant and a slave named Jenny. They embark on a forbidden affair that will eventually lead up to the uprising in 1816.

The women

In her historical note, Lauren wrote that one of the hardest challenges  in writing The Summer Country was trying to reconstruct the life of an enslaved woman. Not just about their daily toil and duties—but the internal life of an enslaved woman, she writes. Jenny felt very real—you will feel the heartbreak right along with her. I haven’t read many novels that feature the life of a slave so this was quite eye opening and emotional. I was so engaged with Jenny’s storyline.

Her owner is a woman named Mary Anne who also inherited a plantation. Mary Anne relies on Jenny for so much—taking care of her both physically and emotionally. And while Mary Anne is fond of Jenny and in many ways does have huge affection for her, she is Jenny’s owner and never lets her forget that. Mary Anne is selfish and frustrating but Lauren does give her some depth making her a complicated character.

Emily is another strong character. She never felt like she fit in back at home but she’s unsure of her place in this foreign location. As she tries to find out more about her family’s past, she also is trying to decide what’s the best path for her forward. I liked that Emily has a nursing background and uses that to help the people of the island.

Epic story

This epic story is so full of rich historical details making this one of the most well-researched stories I’ve ever read. It covers so much and weaves in both fact and fiction seamlessly. And I have to say, I really enjoyed how she ended this one.

A complete story that will make you think. Don’t miss out on this one!

There’s so much to digest with book clubs. Here’s my discussion questions to get you started.

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