A Review of Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea (by Jill)

The Winter Sea cover

I’m happily ensconced in my suite at the Royal Caribe Hotel in Orlando, Florida. I both love and hate traveling alone. While I like to think of myself as a person who would enjoy nothing more than to spend six solid days surrounded by no one I know, alone in a hotel room, with nothing to do but read and play on the internet (oh and go to continuing education lectures about feline medicine for eight hours a day), the actuality of it is a little scary for me. I feel like I should be out being social or something, but no, why should I do that? I have peace and quiet to read and blog and shop online and maybe exercise in the lovely fitness center at this hotel, or even do a Jillian Michaels DVD (I still need to figure out if I can borrow weights from said fitness center).  And then I remember that The Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios Orlando are less than two miles away and I think, “Maybe I should try to make that happen while I’m here….” But I know how that would go down. I’d forget all about school and spend every day sweating at Disney World. And that would be really bad, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that my work is paying for this conference. But I digress.

The Winter Sea first came to my attention a few years ago, and I thought it sounded really interesting. It’s one of those historical fiction with a present-day frame novels, and this one came out right when those sorts of books were first starting to saturate the market. I didn’t read it at the time because 2011 was when I was trying to read exclusively high-end fiction and The Winter Sea came off as too pedestrian and stinking too much of the dreaded chick lit. Since then I’ve come off my high horse a bit, and have learned that sometimes one needs to actually read books that are fun. The interesting thing about this book is that the historical fiction part takes place in early eighteenth century Scotland, and focuses on a group of Jacobites who are trying to reinstate James Stewart to the throne. Does this sound anything like a series of books we here on Postcards from Purgatory really like to talk about? The Jacobite Uprising of interest in this book is not the ’45, but the ’15, and events leading up to it. And the uprising is much more secondary to the plot than in the first two Outlander novels. It’s more a love story than anything else. But it’s a love story with an interesting premise.

The story starts in the present day, with Carrie McClelland, an author of historical fiction. She is working on her latest novel, which is to focus on a minor player in the Jacobite uprising of 1715. She’s having a hard time getting things to flow, and her editor and good friend suggests she add a character along the lines of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby to frame the narrative for her. She remembers that an ancestor of hers, Sophia McClelland, was in Scotland at around the same time (Carrie’s dad is a genealogy buff and has traced their family back many generations), and decides to use her. Part of Carrie’s process is to write in the locations where her books take place, so she goes to the coast of Scotland, to Slains, where there was once a castle where the major character of her book was said to have spent time. But once she’s there, the story flows a little too well. And when she does some digging, some of the details she has invented end up being historical facts. Carrie takes this all in stride, and decides that she has some kind of ancestral memory, descended down the generations from her ancestor Sophia. The improbability of this isn’t really addressed, and I didn’t let it bother me at the time, and I’m not going to let it bother me now, much as I want to fuss about it. I enjoyed this plot device enough to want to believe it. Gradually, Sophia’s story takes over the narrative. She is a girl of sixteen or seventeen or so, come to Slains to live with distant relatives. Her aunt, the Duchess of Erroll, is the mistress of Slains castle, and an ardent Jacobite. There are always people of historical importance coming and going. One of them is John Moray, who actually did exist. Here, he and Sophia fall in love and are secretly married. Because of his position as a spy for the Jacobite cause, no one can know of their relationship because he fears that his enemies will use Sophia against him. They also have a child, a daughter named Anna, who Sophia must give up in order to protect her from Moray’s enemies. I only mention this because Anna is a key character in the next book I’m going to review, The Firebird, and I thought I should probably introduce her. In this day and age, this fact seems more than a bit ridiculous, but back in the eighteenth century women of the noble class were barely allowed out of the house without some sort of escort, and as far as anyone knows, Sophia is an unmarried woman. The way Kearsley works out the end of their story to make it a satisfying conclusion is fairly predictable, but that didn’t make me enjoy it any less.

In the present day, Carrie has her own romance afoot, and her love story is also enjoyable, though much less dramatic and suspenseful and angsty than that of John Moray and Sophia. And that’s fine, because how many modern women get married in secret? Interestingly, both John Moray and Carrie’s suitor Graham Keith, a Slains local who is also a history professor at a nearby university and whose family has been in the area for generations, have the same gray green eyes that are the color of the winter sea (hence the name of the novel). Kearsley never lets on what that could mean as far as possible common ancestry for Carrie and Graham, but she hints at it. I’m hoping that mystery gets solved in The Firebird, but I haven’t finished that book yet, so I don’t know for sure.  The “anestral memory” plot device fascinated me, and I do wish Kearsley had spent a little more time delving into this theory and its origins, etcetera, but then this isn’t really that kind of book, so maybe I’ll just do some research of my own.

Overall, The Winter Sea is an enjoyable novel. I couldn’t really find fault with Kearsley’s writing or her story other than it was occasionally predictable. But she builds suspense well and I did find myself doubting that what I thought was going to happen would actually happen not infrequently as we headed towards the conclusion. I cared about the characters; they seemed real to me, though the men were a bit too idealized, both in the present as well as the past. Carrie and Sophia were more completely drawn, though not as well as they could have been. This book is definitely plot-driven, but that’s fine with me. It was easy reading, and a good choice for reading on a plane. I forgot to mention that I read this one on my Kindle, a reading platform I’m really beginning to enjoy for its portableness and the ability to read in dark places without a light!

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This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Reviews by Jill, Susanna Kearsley. Bookmark the permalink.

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