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Book Review: Rose Cottage by Mary Stewart

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Rose Cottage, by Mary Stewart, is set in post-WW2 England, in 1947. Heroine Kate Herrick is a war widow. Her husband was a pilot who died in the last days of the war and left her a wealthy young widow. She has been living in London ever since, working at a friend’s florist shop, but she is adrift, unsure of what her life will be like.

She then hears from her grandmother, who is recovering from a recent illness. Her grandmother would like to move from England back home to Scotland. She asks Kate to help pack up Rose Cottage, where Kate, once known as Kathy, grew up.

Kathy has a controversial back-story. She was born on the “wrong side of the blanket,” to a young mother who never told her anything about her father. When a sour spinster aunt joined their household tensions rose so much that Kate’s mother eventually left, purportedly running off with a Gypsy. Kate was raised by her loving grandparents. 

As soon as Kate steps foot in the village where she grew up she is pulled back into memories of the past. She is also no longer “Kate,” but becomes “Kathy” again, the name by which everyone in the village knew her.

Rose Cottage is a cozy old-fashioned romance, with a few mysteries for Kathy to unravel. Can she find out anything more about her mother, who ran off with a Gypsy when she was just a child? Who was her father? Who has been sneaking around the cottage, stealing family papers, digging holes in the garden, and visiting her Aunt’s grave in the local cemetery? Are the local “witches” correct that ghosts from Kathy’s family’s past may somehow be involved?

“‘I am not myself afraid of the dark,’ said Miss Mildred, ‘but I don’t like meeting strangers in it.'”

The characters are all very likable, and even if some of the answers to the questions are more obvious than others, Stewart writes so well that the reader is more than happy to pour a cup of tea and cozy up with Rose Cottage, in no rush to get to the finish to find out who done what.

Stewart also deftly sketches the upstairs/downstairs realities of Kathy’s life pre- and post- war. She captures Kathy’s nostalgia for her childhood home and life in a small village.

“Why is it that one always regretted change? Things were not made to stay fixed, preserved in amber. Perhaps the only acceptable amber was memory.”

It is not just nostalgia that captures Kathy’s imagination as she returns to Rose Cottage, but village life. A simpler life may present challenges — nosy neighbors and feelings of isolation — but it can also be very freeing, with a life based on the rhythms of the land versus London’s workday bustle. But is Kathy just taking a temporary vacation into a past world or is Rose Cottage really changing her?

It’s hard to believe that the book was written in 1997. The post-war rationing and other day-to-day aspects of life in an English village are so well drawn that I felt sure while I was reading the story that it was was written in the late 1940s. I had the same feeling while I was reading Rose Cottage that I get when I read an Agatha Christie mystery — where Christie details the English gentry life of the time — just without all the bodies in the library.

Rose Cottage is a lovely little mystery with a dash of romance. Mostly it is a step back into time. Like Kathy, you won’t be sure whether you ever want to leave Rose Cottage.

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