This book tells two stories. First, Carrie McClelland is a successful historical fiction writer working on the story of Slain's castle in 1707 and the attempt of the Jacobites to restore Young King James to his rightful throne in Scotland. The second story is the novel she is writing. I really liked the format of the book. Sometimes books that go back and forth can seem gimmicky, but this worked flawlessly. Carrie's chapters are told in the first person, while the chapters that focus on Slain's and Sophia's story are told by a third person narrator. So you kind of hear Carrie's voice as a writer. They are also marked differently, one with numbers while the others are with Roman numerals.
The Winter Sea provides a lot of history as the story unfolds. I still can't keep all the nobles straight, but I do feel like I learned something about British history. Only a couple of times did I feel like the author was giving us too much historical background. This is a long book, 527 full pages, but it wasn't overwhelming to me. I read it quick, but it helped that we are on Christmas vacation. I really cared about both stories and found them interesting and intriguing. I think I liked the 1707 story a bit better.
Both stories have romance, but only a couple times did they seem cheesy. Kearsley treats her characters with respect (and her readers) by writing about grown-up relationships with out having to give us the graphic details. Both romances are written tastefully, with an understanding that we can fill in what has happened. I appreciate that. I was a little nervous about how she would write the scenes that seemed inevitable, and I was pleasantly surprised.
One of the fun magical aspects of the book is that as Carrie is researching to write her story, she hears her characters. "Watching, I could feel again the stirrings of my characters--the faint, as yet in audible, suggestions of their voices, and their movements close around me...in that strange writer's trance that stole upon me when my characters began to speak." She always hears and feels her characters as she writes her books. But, this time the character she writes about is her ancestor and she hears the details of her life through her character's voice. Carrie is shocked as time after time her research turns up facts that she has already written about. I think she over analyzes this phenomena a bit, I think it would have been cool to just have it be a little supernatural. I know it sounds a little weird, but I thought it was a clever way to tell the story.
The story that Carrie is writing is at first focused on an a group of nobles and colonels who secretly meet and plot to return the Scottish king to his throne. I guess this is one of the lesser known attempts. She begins to focus on a young girl who has recently come to live in Slain's castle, Sophia. Again I appreciated the authors restraint to not overwhelm the writer with tragic, graphic details of Sophia's past. Sophia alludes to a troubled upbringing after both her parents die, but even when the full story is revealed, you are spared the sordid details. Sophia is a great character, and I grew very attached to her. When tragedy strikes again toward the end, she makes a decision that is hard to sympathize with. For me, I took it in stride with the context of her age and station in the early 1700's. I don't want to reveal too much, but I read in some other reviews that it was shocking to some readers. I think it is sad, and not the best choice, but it didn't ruin the story.
I loved the Countess of Earl. She is a smart woman who keeps her cool and is not fooled by anyone. She provides a great home for Sophia, and makes lots of wise decisions. "Her voice, as always, calmed the waters." She was very influential in the planning and preparations for the '08. In one of her early conversations with Sophia she says, "Do you not believe that the opinion of a woman is of value? For I tell you, I would rather have a woman's thoughts on character than those of any man." Later she remarks to Sophia, "Were it up to God alone, I do not doubt but that the king would have been here already. But God passes His affairs into the hands of men, and there the trouble lies." See what I mean? Wise.
In the modern day story, I loved the Keith family. The sweet charming dad that speaks in a strong dialect, and the two handsome sons. Carrie says about them, "Stuart might be nice to look at. Graham was the kind of man I couldn't look way from." (Yes, her love interest is named Graham. Loved it.)
I love the description when Sophia wades in the ocean for the first time, "though she had come to it reluctantly, it proved to be the greatest pleasure that she could remember since her childhood." Later she has to have some difficult conversations with men who are playing both sides of the attempt too return King James. She does great staying calm. Another great description, "Their conversation was a sort of dance, she thought, with complicated steps, but as the time wore on she grew to know the way of it, and when to step, and when to twirl, and when to simply stand and wait."
This is a good book. I thought both stories were captivating, and I couldn't wait to get back to reading each time I had to stop. Susanna Kearsley knows how to write a good story. If you're up for something a little longer, I would definetly suggest this for a fulfilling read. And be sure to let me know what you think.