Book Review: Honeysuckle Season

Title: Honeysuckle Season
Author: Mary Ellen Taylor
Genre: Mystery, Romance, Historical Fiction

What it’s about: In 1941, Olivia Carter, the London-born wife of Dr. Edward Carter meets Sadie Thompson, a girl from a poor family, in Bluestone, Virginia, while she and her brother deliver moonshine to the Woodmont Estate. Edward hires Sadie to drive Olivia around town in their car, while both of Sadie’s brothers are at war. Olivia and Sadie become close, with Sadie knowing about Olivia’s miscarriages, and teaching Olivia how to drive a car. The two girls visit Dr. Carter in a hospital, and know very quickly that something is off–the hospital is eerily quiet, with screams–and while Olivia and Edward have a picnic, Sadie sits in the car, dozing off until a patient of the hospital slams her fist in the car window. Sadie watches as the girl panics, frantically, while the Sheriff and another nurse from the hospital try to get the girl back into the hospital.

This memory stays with them for a while, but they do not talk about it. Olivia goes with Sadie to the General store, and buys some magazines as well as a green dress that Sadie was eyeing, but that the daughter of the general store’s owner said that Sadie could not afford and also could not afford to go to the party. Olivia then gifts the items to Sadie when they return to the Woodmont estate. At some point in the early months of 1942, Olivia gets Sadie to let her drive the car in icy roads, resulting in Olivia losing control of the car and getting them into a ditch. Sadie switches seats with her, and gets help to get the car out of the ditch. No one is hurt, but Olivia miscarries her baby. As a result of the accident, Sadie gets fired, and the Sheriff tells her that she has been warned by the Carters to stay away, so she shouldn’t get into trouble.

Sadie goes to the party in the green dress, and meets Malcom Carter, Edward’s cousin, who spikes her drink with moonshine. He takes her back to the car, and rapes her, telling her that no one will believe her and that everyone knows that she is wearing a dress that asked for it. Ashamed, Sadie goes home, and tries to forget it ever happened, but several months later, she goes to the general store after feeling poorly, and the owner tells her that Olivia left magazines for her.

Sadie decides to go to the Woodmont estate to thank Olivia for them, and she meets her at the greenhouse on the estate, where she complains that she has been very hungry. Olivia touches her belly and tells Sadie that she is with child and asks after the father. Sadie is in disbelief but tells Olivia that it is Malcom Carter. Knowing what Edward does, and understanding the reality of society–where Malcom’s words would carry more weight than Sadie’s–Olivia tells Sadie to go home to her mother, tell her what is going on and stay off the radar. Sadie does just that, while Olivia tries to get Malcom to show up in order to confront him. She also makes it clear to Edward that she will be more independent, and do what she wants, including driving in the car despite his protests.

Sadie gives birth to a baby girl, and while going to the General Store to buy some items, she sees Malcom. Anger overtakes her for what he did, as she confronts him and he dismisses her, so she gets in the old truck and runs him over. After the rush of anger is over, she drives home, tells her mother, who in turn tells her to get out of town, giving Sadie the only money she has saved up. Sadie leaves behind her daughter, takes the truck as far as she can get it to go, to escape the sheriff, and when it breaks down, she runs into the woods that she knows so well. At the same time, Olivia overhears her husband on the phone and he tells her that Sadie has run Malcom over in broad daylight, so he wants her caught and in jail. Olivia tells him that Malcom raped her, while Edward tells her that his cousin is a good man and that Sadie is a gold-digger, making up stories. Olivia makes him a drink and gives him some of her laudanum in the drink, enough to put him to sleep for a while. She then gets in the car, drives to find Sadie in the woods and takes Sadie to the train station, giving her some money for her to make her way out of town.

In 2020, Libby is in the home of Dr. McKenzie, her father who passed away several weeks ago, sleeping on the couch. Her friend, Sierra, wakes her up and the two of them get ready for Ginger’s wedding that will be held at the newly renovated Woodmont Estate. As the weather worsens and rain starts pouring, Libby runs for the umbrellas in her car, only to be picked up by Colton, Ginger’s brother, on the way back to the ceremony. She continues snapping photos of the bride and groom in the rain, and also of the wedding party inside. On her job, she meets Elaine, Olivia’s granddaughter, who inherited the estate and is now currently renovating it. Elaine invites Libby to come photograph the estate more and catalogue it for potentially opening it to the public as an event space. Libby agrees, and arrives there the following day. Elaine takes her to the Greenhouse which Olivia had closed down in the eighties for no clear reason. She had been raised by her grandparents–Olivia and Edward Carter–when her parents passed away in a horrific car accident.

As Libby starts taking pictures at the Woodmont Estate, she begins to get closer to Colton, and the family. Elaine’s daughter, Lofton, is suspicious of Libby and tells her to stay away from her mother, but Libby doesn’t do that. As the greenhouse renovation gets underway, Libby and Colton have a one-night stand without protection–Libby has gotten divorced from her ex-husband, because she could not bear children and her chances of getting pregnant are slim–but with the promise to explore their feelings further. Libby gets busy with wedding season, but she also visits Sierra at the old General Store that Sierra has purchased with the intent of creating a Sandwich Shop in town. Unfortunately, Sierra does not have any collateral for a loan that would allow her to renovate the store, but that also gives Libby an idea–she could use her father’s house as collateral for the store for Sierra’s purpose.

This results in Libby going through her father’s documents and finding a letter address to her from Olivia basically stating that Elaine is her mother. Libby has known for a very long time that she was adopted, and wanted to know more about her parents but both of her parents were tight-lipped about it. In shock, she calls Elaine, and when Elaine does not respond, Libby drives out to her home in Washington DC. Elaine admits that she was her birth mother, and when Libby asks about her father, Elaine reveals that Dr. McKenzie was her father. She tells her that she had been an intern in Dr. McKenzie’s office at the behest of her grandfather, Edward Carter, as he wanted her to go into medicine. They had a one-night stand, resulting in getting her pregnant. When Olivia found out, and knowing that Edward Carter would look down on the pregnancy–he had been later accused of sterilizing low-income women–she sent Elaine to a friend, Sadie Thompson, living in New Jersey, where Elaine gave birth to Libby. Dr. McKenzie knew about the pregnancy, and asked Elaine to consider letting him adopt her, and after heavy deliberation, she agreed. This allowed her to go to law school fully, and protect her from Edward, though when Olivia and Edward passed away, Elaine was bitter about giving Libby up and shut down Woodmont on purpose. Elaine also reveals that she met with Dr. McKenzie a few months before his death and gave him the letter from Olivia, asking that he tell Libby the truth, which he promised to do, but when she met Libby at the wedding, she realized that Libby didn’t know who she was.

Libby throws herself into her work, jetting around Europe for wedding photography, and continues to blow off Colton. Five weeks later, she gets back in town, and after feeling exhausted for the last while, she figures out that she might be pregnant. Sierra visits her, and Libby tells her the truth about her parentage, while Sierra gives her saltine crackers and ginger ale. That night, Colton visits her saying that he found out she’s back in town from Sierra, and wants to inquire about why Libby has been running from him, though he tells her that before she answers him, she needs to know that Elaine has been trying to reach her. Lofton got into a car accident, wrapping her car around a tree, and will probably go to jail. Apparently, Lofton was so distraught at the fact that Elaine is giving Libby Woodmont that she tried to damage the greenhouse, but was caught by Colton and tried to run away while drunk, resulting in her wrapping her car in the tree. As they drive to the hospital so that Libby can watch out for her baby sister, she tells Colton that she took several pregnancy tests, all of which indicated that she is pregnant. Colton is ecstatic, and requests that she have a pregnancy test done by his sister, Ginger. Libby agrees, and berates Lofton in the hospital for making their mother worry. She sits with her until Elaine and Ted, her husband, arrive to spend time with Lofton. Libby and Colton then go to see Ginger, who after testing her, confirms that Libby is pregnant and makes Colton excited. Libby tells him to cool his jets, because she has never had a successful pregnancy–all three of her pregnancies ended in miscarriages in the first trimester–but Ginger tells her that she will recommend her to a doctor that specializes in high-risk pregnancies like hers, allowing for better care.

Libby also visits Margaret–Colton’s and Ginger’s mother–to ask more about Elaine and Olivia. It turns out that Margaret is Sadie’s daughter–after Olivia dropped off Sadie at the train station, Olivia returned to Sadie’s home, took Sadie’s mother and child into her home and gave them a job in the kitchen–first the mom, and later Margaret. During that time, Olivia gave birth to her one and only son, Stuart, who is Elaine’s father, and Margaret grew up with him. She tells Libby that Olivia and Edward had a seemingly wonderful marriage in the public space, but after the whole situation with Sadie, Edward was cold to her at home. If Olivia left him, he made it clear that Stuart would stay with him, and she wouldn’t have access to her son, so Olivia stayed. Sadie, on the other hand, ended up in New Jersey working at a war-time factory. She met a man there and married him, but they did not have any children. Olivia often went up to New York City, and until Margaret’s 13th birthday, she did not know that Olivia was meeting up with Sadie in NYC. She finally took Margaret to meet Sadie on her 13th birthday, and over time, Margaret began to understand that Sadie made the best choice for them both by leaving Margaret with her grandmother, because every time Sadie looked at Margaret, she saw Malcom and was reminded of that horrible night. Sadie made her peace on her deathbed in 1994 after a fight with cancer, and Margaret was there to say her final good-byes to her mama. Malcom on the other hand married, divorced and remarried many times, with numerous children, but ultimately ended up dying alone.

Throughout the remainder of the year, Libby gets married to Colton, and then she gives birth to a healthy girl that they name after Sadie. She gets majority ownership of the Woodmont, though it’s also partially owned by Lofton.

My Verdict: This was an amazing story about Virginia in the 1940s. I loved the characters, and the way that the author beautifully weaved the past and the present, making the Conservatory/Garden the centerpiece of connection between the four women–Sadie, Olivia, Elaine and Libby. It’s such a vivid depiction of the times–the running of the moonshine by Sadie’s family, which was fairly common in agricultural areas world wide, no matter how people want to pretend it didn’t happen. It touches upon difficult topics–miscarriages and adoptions that come from difficult choices, though I think what resonated a lot was Elaine’s explanation that she was angry with her grandmother, and only when she read her journals did she realize where Olivia was coming from when she had Elaine give up Libby.

It was a pleasant surprise because the title of the book “Honeysuckle season” made me think that it had to do a lot with gardening and gossiping old ladies sitting on porches discussing their hydrangea bushes or something. So to have such a depth and breadth in this book about a time in history that, quite frankly, is not often explored, was amazing. Often times, anything WWII related books tend to happen in Europe–Poland, Germany, France, England–and involves people in the thick of the action, such as correspondents, spies, soldiers, or women caught between family, duty and love. And this is quite the opposite–it speaks of life during wartime in the US, which was affected to some extent with women picking up manufacturing jobs previously done by men.

Overall, one of the best books that I’ve read in recent weeks. Recommend it if you are also a fan of WWII fiction and want something a bit different than your usual run-of-the-mill “Nazi invading whatever country in Europe and people under the invading forces finding love” stories.

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