“Jean, find the Armagnac and I will try to tell Emilie more of what I know. And, unfortunately for me” — Jacques made a sound somewhere between a groan and a chuckle — “it is everything. I’ve been thinking since you left, Emilie, whether the rest of it should go with me to the grave. But then” — he shrugged — “how can you make sense of the present if you do not know of the past?”
(from The Lavender Garden, page 207)
The Lavender Garden is a dual-narrative novel by Lucinda Riley set in Gassin, France, in 1998, when Emilie de la Martinières inherits the château and vineyard that has been in her father’s family for centuries. She is torn between selling the property or undertaking a massive restoration project when she meets Sebastian Carruthers, a British art dealer whose grandmother knew Emilie’s father and stayed at the château during World War II. Emilie’s father was 60 years old when she was born, and he died when she was 14, so she doesn’t know anything about his wartime exploits, just that he’s revered as a hero. Emilie turns to old family friend and former vineyard manager, Jacques, who is the only one who knows the tragic events that transpired there during the war.
Riley transports readers back to Paris during the Nazi occupation. Constance Carruthers, a British filing clerk turned SOE agent, is unable to make contact with her assigned Resistance network and finds herself at the home of Edouard de la Martinières just as he’s playing host to high-ranking Gestapo, SS, Abwehr, and Milice officers. Unable to fulfill her SOE duties for fear of compromising Edouard’s position in the Resistance, Constance plays the role of his second cousin on an extended visit, during which she befriends his blind sister, Sophia, and catches the eye of the sinister Colonel Falk von Wehndorf.
Emilie travels between the château and the cold English estate where she lives with Sebastian to piece together her family history and forges an unlikely friendship with Sebastian’s wheelchair-bound brother, Alex, who is hidden away in a separate wing of the home. As the secrets of the de la Martinières and the Carruthers families are revealed, Emilie must come to terms with the past, sort through the lies in the present, and forge a new future for herself.
The Lavender Garden is a complex novel that kept me guessing until the end. Both narratives are interesting and well-developed, though I felt more invested in Constance’s story, from the action and suspense inherent in a tale of intrigue and resistance to Sophia’s tale of forbidden love and desire to be seen as a woman, not a weakling whose blindness has made her dependent on her brother and the kindness of a virtual stranger. Emilie was a harder character to like because readers know right away that she is blind to the truth, though I couldn’t help but root for her as she gained strength from the story of her aunt and the woman who risked it all to protect the de la Martinières family.
Riley’s prose is beautiful, painting a portrait of a château that has been through as much as its inhabitants and serves as a symbol of their strength. She enables readers to feel a part of both narratives, with her rich descriptions and well-developed characters. The characters are fascinating on their own, but when put together in such a carefully constructed, intricate plot, they become unforgettable. I was completely swept up in the novel from the very first page and finished it in a day.
The Lavender Garden is about love and betrayal, war and all its gray areas, and how one’s purpose in life can be found in the most unexpected places. It’s hard to find a dual-narrative novel in which the modern-day story holds up as well as the historical story, but Riley connected both in a way I didn’t expect and made me like both of her heroines for different reasons — Constance for her sense of duty and loyalty, and Emilie for her determination to create something wonderful from the tragedy and loss of war. I enjoyed The Lavender Garden even more than The Orchid House and can’t wait to read more of Riley’s work.
Disclosure: I received The Lavender Garden from Atria for review.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.