She Sings of Old, Unhappy, Far-off Things

She Sings of Old, Unhappy, Far-off Things - Caren J. Werlinger The first thing I noticed about the book was the title. Coupled with the first paragraph of the book blurb, it turned me off instantly. :) Who wants to read about an old, unhappy (and probably cranky) woman who's "dried up and dead" like her neglected garden? If not for all the people who took time to leave reviews on GR, I'd have missed this little-promoted gem. Turns out the book title is a snippet from a beautiful but plaintive Wordsworth poem. And it isn't about the older character in the book, but the younger one.

This is a May-December romance, that much is obvious but it's not really the main focus of the book. Margaret Braithwaite has lived all her life in the shadow of her illustrious husband and fellow professor. Against his very successful string of serious Civil War tomes, she has produced one "paltry" romance novel, even though she is also a PHD. Margaret is something of a literary equivalent of Mrs. Stephen Hawking, so you can just imagine her predicament. In addition, Mr. Braithwaite is suffering from ill health due to his advanced years. Yep, Margaret is no stranger to May-December romances herself.

Wyck, a thirty-something, self-employed landscaper is hired to work in her husband's extensive garden. But Wyck is no ordinary gardener. Slowly, she and the professor bond over flowers, Jane Austen and Romantic lit. Their blossoming friendship lights up both women. But there is a reason Wyck prefers plants to people--they can't break her heart. Not only is Margaret very married, she is also married to the most esteemed professor in her university.

This is a traditional romance where the arrival of an enigmatic person--young, well-spoken, sexy--and as different as can be, opens up the eyes of a tired and worn soul whose spark had been almost snuffed out by decades of conformity, duty and submission. They are both kindred spirits, viciously wounded but surviving, though not thriving. Nice enough plot, but what makes this book feel special is the author's grasp and understanding of her characters. I love how she depicts their thoughts and their actions--lots of hesitation and second-guessing, the occasional impulsive move. It all feels so natural and realistic. The push-pull of emotions and actions is meticulously drawn, as two people who are unavoidably attracted to one another feel but at the same time, know that it's not possible or right. The author throws up more hurdles than an obstacle course, so it got rather frustrating at one point. :) There were some instances when I felt that Margaret's ambivalent feelings towards her husband, the school faculty and the grant from a zealous supporter of her husband, meant that she would just chuck it all and run off with Wyck. I was led to believe that--from her thoughts, to her words and actions. For example, in the memorial, she was really uncomfortable and seemed to want to get it over with. I would have thought she would have been more proud of her husband's achievements and the recognition and prestige it brought both of them...after all, they were married for decades. (I'm drawing a comparison here with another recent read, [b:Coming Home|3449738|Coming Home|Lois Cloarec Hart||3490858] where, even though the wife fell in love with another, she cherished her time with her husband) But Margaret seemed to detest her husband's achievements in that area, and her school's efforts to extend his legacy. If so, why did she choose them over Wyck? Was it to protect her own reputation then? Perhaps. But after all they went through, what she felt for Wyck ought to trump that. The step-grandchildren were a more compelling reason, but we were never shown any interaction with them, so we simply have to take the author's word for it. It all turns out okay in the end though, so no major complaints there. It's just that the initial decision didn't seem to jibe with her thoughts/feelings on the matter.

There is a subplot about prejudice, violence and the effects it has on people. It might seem a little out of place in a sweet romance novel but I think it added to the overall realism and edginess of this book.

5 stars