Book: “The Witch of Willow Hall” by Hester Fox
Publishing Info: Graydon House, October 2018
Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley
Book Description: New Oldbury, 1821
In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.
All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…
Review: I picked up this book from NetGalley based on a promotional line comparing it to a spooky Jane Austen novel set in the U.S. Well, as we know, about 95% of the time, any comparison to Jane Austen will both A.) lead to me reading the book and B.) leave me massively disappointed. While I’ve definitely read books that fared worse (for one, for all I can tell the only reason this comparison was made was because of the time period and the “manners romance” aspect of it…which, just stop it. It’s a historical romance. There are plenty of those, and they don’t all need to be compared to Austen), this book was a disappointment to me. Maybe not a massive disappointment, but a disappointment all the same.
Lydia, the middle daughter, has always known there is something strange about herself, ever since she mildly blacked out as a child when fighting with a local bully and re-awakened to find him beaten on the street. But at this point, any concerns about scandal she may bring to the family pale in comparison to the mess that her sister, Catherine, has gotten them into. Fleeing to the country, the family now find themselves closed up in a mysterious house with many strange rumors surrounding it. But on the positive side, they have quite a charming neighbor, a gentleman named John.
There were a few strong points of this book that I want to start by highlighting. For one, I’m always going to love a good historical setting. While there were a few anachronisms here and there, nothing was too extreme to really throw me out of the book in any meaningful way. Instead, I still enjoyed the general rhythm of language, emphasis on social callings, and historical setting that were employed. As long as an author doesn’t greatly mess these basic features up, they’re always going to come away with at least a partial win under their belt as far as I’m concerned.
Secondly, as readers of this blog know, Kate is the horror fan. While I’ll read the heck out of dark fantasy novel any day of the week, I tend to steer clear of straight-up horror. And this is probably one of the closest reads to that genre that I’ve wandered into for a while. Don’t get me wrong, horror fans will likely be underwhelmed by this book, since, let’s be real, this is definitely a historical romance at its heart. But I will say that there were elements of the story that legitimately creeped me out. It didn’t help that I was reading this book the one night my husband was out of town. But I think either way, there would have been some shivers.
The other positive note is that, alongside with these legitimately creepy scenes, the book didn’t shy away from going to some pretty grim places with the story. It starts out with a pretty rough scene dealing with animal cruelty and then continues in a story that insists that even main characters aren’t safe from harsh consequences. There was one scene in particular that was lead up to and the entire time I was partially rolling my eyes, expecting the author to pull back at the last minute. Instead, she went full throttle into it and I was honestly surprised and (in a very grim sort of way) pleased that she committed to this particularly story thread.
But, even with these positives in its favor, I still greatly struggled with the story. For one thing, there were a few twists that I found entirely predictable and the story took way too long to finally come out with the “mysterious” truth. And then when this secret does land, it didn’t really seem to have much of an impact. Not only did I already suspects this particular twist, but the revelation doesn’t greatly change the situation. The family is still disgraced; the mystery behind why doesn’t have much impact on the reality of that situation.
I also didn’t particularly enjoy Catherine as a character. As the focal point of said “twisty” family rumor, there was a lot of room to do something interesting with her arc. Instead, she is written as pretty much an awful person with no redeeming qualities. There are a few moments where I thought we would see some growth or some expanded depth of character revealed, but then in only a few short pages, she goes right back to just being plain terrible with very little else in the way of character development to support her. And with this being a fact of her character, many of Lydia’s own struggles are automatically undercut. I couldn’t sympathize with her indecision or naivete when everything that the reader has seen (and we’re only exposed to Catherine for a period of a few short months, when presumably Lydia has a lifetime of experience) would point to a relationship that has been not worth fighting for for quite a while. There were a few moments towards the last third, in particular, where Lydia’s choices are so incredibly stupid that I had to actually put the book down and take a deep breath before continuing.
This same problem, Lydia’s bizarre choices and fixations, lead to my not particularly enjoying the romance at the center of this story. And this is where the Austen comparisons are coming into play, as there is a lot of miscommunication and confusion at the heart of this romance to draw out the moment of happiness until the end. But the thing is, Austen created legitimate stumbling blocks and points of misdirection in her romances. We get why Elizabeth misunderstood Darcy. We understand why Emma didn’t recognize her feelings for Knightly. But here, we have a hero who is actually spelling it out for our heroine and she, instead, is choosing to believe the terrible sister who has mislead her and betrayed her at every turn. Or she simply gives in to crippling indecision and insecurity for no real reason whatsoever.
I have very little patience for these types of heroines or these types of plot points that aren’t based in anything other than an author’s need to follow a typical romance plot storyboard where the main characters can’t get together until the final scene. If you don’t have a legitimate, plot- or story-based reason for keeping your romance in suspense, you might just need to re-think the entire thing. Either flesh out your plot/characters, or just accept that your romance needs to follow a non-traditional path. This type of forced suspense not only kills any real suspense there might be, but also damages the characters at its heart.
In the end, I was ultimately let down by this book. I’m glad I got in at least one sort-of spooky book before Halloween, but it’s too bad that other than the creepiness and general historical setting, this book didn’t have a lot going for it. If you really love historical romances with a dash of creepiness, than you might enjoy this. But if you’re wanting any depth of character from your heroine, hero, and villain, you probably need to look elsewhere.
Rating 5: Some legitimate spooky scenes were let down by a plot and set of characters that were simply too weak to carry the story.
“The Witch of Willow Hall” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Ghost Fiction” and “Autumn Seasonal Reads.”
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