I’m attracted to stories in which the protagonist (usually a woman who’s divorced, widowed or otherwise on her own) flees her city life and heads deep into the British countryside or to a far-flung island to work through grief, research a paper, write a book, or inherit a deceased relative’s dilapidated cottage. Even before she crosses the sagging threshold, the heroine struggles to cope with the challenges of unfamiliar surroundings, eccentric villagers and the surly yet handsome neighbour who lives in tortured angst down the dank, hedgerowed lane. As our fish-out-of-water negotiates how to repair her leaky roof or feed the wheezing coin-operated boiler (encountering mysteries, ghosts and the occasional moonlit pagan ritual along the way), as she unblocks chimneys and scrubs ancient grime from the massive oak worktop, she gradually sweeps away the dusty echoes of the house’s – and her own – past. And as she cleans up the mess of her own life, she helps her odd neighbours come to terms with their respective wounds and secrets.
I call this recurring fixer-upper theme the Stone Cottage Syndrome. It’s not so much a syndrome as a device many authors I’ve read seem to use. It could very well be considered cliché, but, if done right, this motif can set a scene that’s both wildly romantic and hauntingly eerie. In other words, right up my ivy-covered alley.
From my bookshelf are some novels which use the cobweb-clearing Stone Cottage device to very satisfying effect:
- Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart, who’s permanently entrenched near the top of my list of favourite authors. The main characters of Stewart’s adventure romance novels – intelligent and determined females all – find mystery, peril and love in foreign climes. This one takes place on an isolated Hebrides island with no motorcars and post that comes by ferry thrice a week. (Hodder and Stoughton, 1991)
- Running Wild by Victoria Clayton. Leaving her unsuitable fiancé at the altar, the main character flees to a decrepit cottage in Dorset. (Orion 2001)
- As with Thornyhold (which I’ve discussed before but easily belongs in this category as well), the first time I read Mary Stewart’s Rose Cottage, I devoured it in a couple of hours and immediately went back for a second helping. And I learned what a green baize door is; you can’t have a proper English country house without one. (William Morrow, 1997)
- Mandy by Julie Edwards (otherwise known as singer/actress Julie Andrews) is a sweet children’s novel about a young English girl who stumbles upon and secretly fixes up an empty cottage and its overgrown garden. Shell rooms, wildflowers and plucky orphans – what could be better?! (Harper & Row, 1971)
- Speaking of resourceful kids, my next selection features three of them, stranded in Wales during a heavy blizzard. Snowed Up by Rosalie K. Fry (who also wrote The Secret of Roan Inish) doesn’t have an adult lead character, but young cousins who must work together to survive a frightening night in a freezing, abandoned stone farmhouse. This book made a huge impression on me when I was a kid and has survived many a zealous purge, remaining with me to this day. Plus, this tale taught me the meaning of the word ‘swede’. (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1970)
- When it comes to meticulously researched historical romance and superb storytelling, Ontario’s Susanna Kearsley is hands-down my favourite author. (BTW, this blog is a Harlequin-free zone; no ripped bodices and heaving bosoms here. Ever.) Beginning with her first novel, Mariana, each story features an element of time-slipping, ghosts or past-life regression. But, like the zombies of The Walking Dead, these suspension-of-disbelief devices take a backseat to the real story, which is about actual historical events – and true love. In The Winter Sea (Allison & Busby, 2008), my favourite of her works, all of these are expertly combined in a remote cottage setting, and there’s even a derelict Scottish castle thrown in for good measure. This story riveted me from the get-go, and I wept at the end. For half an hour. As if that weren’t enough, The Firebird (2014) is the sequel to The Winter Sea, and both share ties with 1997’s The Shadowy Horses. Go read these, and all of Kearsley’s books. Posthaste.
Honourable Mention: In Veil of Time by Claire R. McDougall, not only does the heroine find herself holed up in a remote cottage complete with ancient standing stones, she astrally projects (in a cool, totally believable way) to 8th century Scotland as well. Many parts of this novel were entertaining, but I found the ending a tad abrupt and disappointing. (Gallery Books, 2014)