The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley is a literary gem. This novel first crossed my radar while I was perusing my favorite website (barnesandnoble.com). I happened to be looking up books on my “to be read list”, when the Winter Sea, popped up under the section titled: “Customers Who Bought This Also Bought…” Normally, I only glance quickly at the books recommended to me, but pay little heed to the list overall…because how much can a computer really know about what novels I will enjoy? Much to my surprise, barnesandnoble.com really “got me” on this one. What thoroughly persuaded me to immerse myself in the world of the Winter Sea was not just the plot summary (which intrigued me) but also the impressive ratings that over 800+ readers had awarded it. Based on the recommendations of such a plethora of complete strangers, I decided to join the bandwagon, and I’m happy to say…I was not disappointed.
The Winter Sea revolves around the intertwining of two worlds: one set in the 18th Century, and the other in present day. Carrie McClelland, a historical novelist, finds herself drawn to the Scottish Castle of Slains and the role of it’s occupants in the failed Franco-Scot Invasion of 1708 that attempted to restore the exiled James VIII to the Scottish throne. Carrie arbitrarily names the protagonist of her story, Sophia, after an ancestor, and begins writing her newest novel. As she writes, Carrie frequently finds herself in a trance-like state, creating entire scenes and chapters from memory without prior research. It doesn’t take long for Carrie to reach the conclusion that there is a deeper truth to her historical accounts and characters than she initially believed (even her “random” choice of using an ancestor as her protagonist is rooted more in fact than fiction). She states: “It wasn’t chance. There wasn’t any part of it that happened just by chance. I learned this later; though the realization, when it came, was hard for me to grasp because I’d always had a firm belief in self-determination” (1). Through the creation of her novel, Carrie uncovers historical truths that have been buried for centuries, and discovers that her own life is irreversibly linked to the outcome of Sophia’s story.
At its core, the Winter Sea is a romantic novel that flirts with more substantial historical themes. Susanna Kearsley skillfully and thoughtfully creates two parallel storylines that unfold simultaneously and mesh in a cohesive, comprehensible manner. The chapters alternate fairly consistently between Carrie and Sophia’s perspectives. Unlike most novelists who write a framed narrative (or a mise en abyme to my French compatriots), Kearsley effectively manages to juggle both characters and storylines without losing reader interest along the journey. Kearsley possesses the writing prowess to breathe life into not one, but two main figures. However, although both Carrie and Sophia are relatable and possess human characteristics (such as the ability to love, think and interact with others), they lack true uniqueness and individuality; their interactions veer on the side of predictable. Both characters fit snuggly into a typical romantic novel protagonist mold.
Overall, Susanna Kearsley chronicles a story that captivated my attention, and kept me reading consistently, but she didn’t pursue themes that forced me to truly think or be overly contemplative (in other words, creating a novel with substance or depth is not Ms. Kearsley’s strongest writing attribute). With that said however, I in no way (shape or form) want to diminish the overall enjoyment I experienced reading this book. In all sincerity, Susanna Kearsley is a storyteller, and a dang good one at that (I specifically loved how she explained the concept of ancestral memory in such a plausible, realistic way without careening into the world of science fiction). In fact, I must admit that I was so engrossed in this novel that I didn’t want it to end, and when it unfortunately did (as all good books must do), I eagerly picked up two other novels by Susanna Kearsley: The Rose Garden and Mariana. Sadly, both novels fell short of my expectations. Neither gripped my attention or had the same seamless narrative fluidity (or literary magic) as I had discovered in the Winter Sea.
Total Points Awarded:
Point Breakdown 101:
Category 1: Theme
A. Consistent and clear theme(s)
B. Fully developed and explored theme(s)
-Tie into plot and character development
C. Thought invoking theme(s)
Total Points Received in this Category: 2
***Points Lost: Did not meet requirement C
Category 2: Characters
A. Characters are unique
B. Characters are animated and relatable (3 dimensional)
C. Characters possess human characteristics and depth
D. Character learns something about self or world; Experiences a moment of clarity/ revelation
E. Characters seek to enhance plot and themes
Total Points Received in this Category: 3.5
***Points Lost: Did not meet requirement A; received .5 on requirement D
Category 3: Plot
A. Beginning, middle and end (although not necessarily in that order)
-Organized structure (interrelation of all parts of a story to make a whole; completeness)
B. Cohesive, thoughtful design to story telling
C. Meaningful, significant purpose (what aim to reveal, criticize, or showcase)
-Clarity, thoughtfulness and relevance of detail to enhance purpose
D. Presence of a struggle /conflict/ trial/ adversity
E. Interesting/ attention holding
F. Satisfying Conclusion
-Brings together Plot, Theme, Character in a succinct and satisfactory manner
Total Points Received in this Category: 6
Category 4: Style
A. Writing style is accessible to readers (not elevated language)
B. Style accurately communicates themes and enhances character representations
C. Contains consistency in expression, execution and design of ideas
D. Illuminates rather than obscures basic human truths
E. Effectively helps to create a complete reality
F. Effectively communicates human emotion with unique and powerful language
Total Points Received in this Category: 6
Caitlin’s Overall Opinion:
The Winter Sea is a fast-moving novel packed full of romance and historical intrigue…definitely an excellent choice for a rainy day read!
P.S. If you like this book, check out Letters from Home or Bridge of Scarlet Leaves by Kristina McMorris!!