The story of how Sara Sheridan ‘the last book of The Righteous Botanists became fascinating. Or to be envied if you are trying to get a book published yourself. In an author’s note at the end of the novel, Sara recounts how she was eating in a restaurant when she received a text from her agent saying she was currently with a publisher and thought Sara and this publisher should meet. . The agent and her editor friend were at the same restaurant as Sara, she joined them and the book was ordered based on the resulting conversation.
This book, The Righteous Botanists, is a historical novel set in Edinburgh in 1822. It is told largely from the perspective of two women with a passing interest in botany who witness the creation of the New Botanic Gardens, with giant trees transplanted and transported in carts down the main streets. Belle Brodie, the granddaughter of a duke, although illegitimate, earns her living as a maintained woman. She is the mistress of two local men, and they pay her generously for it. She also has an income from a half-brother whom she blackmails, and from an apothecary to whom she supplies her homemade perfumes. Although she is infamous, she is also tough and glamorous, and takes care of her minions.
Elizabeth Rocheid, meanwhile, is an English widow who was taken in by her late husband’s family and brought to Edinburgh to care for an aging relative, Lady Clementina. She accepts their invitation because she has nowhere to go, but feels like an impostor among them as her marriage to their late cousin was not happy, and she is happy to be free from him. Elizabeth is a talented botanical illustrator and offers her services to James McNab who oversees the garden, which is adjacent to the Rocheid Estate. When she goes to the lending library for a book and is informed that Miss Brodie currently has it, the two women meet and form a quick friendship.
There is something about The Righteous Botanists which holds the reader at arm’s length. Told in the third person in the present tense, the story sometimes seems distant from all of its characters. The language of the novel is also a little too formal, no doubt in an attempt to give it that historical feeling. The bottom line though, is that it takes some time to get into reading it. It’s a slow, character-driven novel, and sometimes I wondered if something was ever going to happen. Fortunately, in the second half of the book, several things to do begin to occur, and the plot resumes.
Belle’s character in particular is captivating and I would have appreciated knowing more about her. What prompts a courtesan to take an interest in botany? How did she get educated? What was the dynamic between her and her half-brother? Much of this is left to the imagination. The same goes for the many supporting characters, all of whom are starting to blend into each other – something that isn’t helped by the proliferation of Jameses and Jamies.
While the book has a compelling premise and promising characters, overall it falls short of the lavish historical fiction that has been released in recent times. It has been compared to Jessie burton and Imogen HermÃ¨s Gowar, but I think this comparison is more suited to the setting than to the level of excitement one might expect.
With royal figures, love stories, courtesans who make potions, literary figures and a plant that only blooms once in a century, it’s safe to say that I wanted more of this. delivered. If you like beautiful language and slow, relaxing books with beautiful botanical details, then maybe this will suit you better.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
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