Periodically, I like to recommend a bunch of books without writing reviews. This post focuses primarily on what I’d call mainstream fiction mixed with women’s fiction, and all of the recommended titles have a romantic element. They’re also overwhelmingly UK-based stories, even if written by US writers. If you haven’t read the books in my Worth Every Penny post, I recommend looking at those as well.
The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley
Spanning from the 1930s to the present day, from the Wharton Park estate in England to Thailand, this sweeping novel tells the tale of a concert pianist and the aristocratic Crawford family, whose shocking secrets are revealed, leading to devastating consequences.
As a child, concert pianist Julia Forrester spent many idyllic hours in the hothouse of Wharton Park, the grand estate reminiscent of Downton Abbey where her grandfather tended exotic orchids. Years later, while struggling with overwhelming grief over the death of her husband and young child, she returns to this tranquil place. There she reunites with Kit Crawford, heir to the estate and her possible salvation.
When they discover an old diary, Julia seeks out her grandmother to learn the truth behind a love affair that almost destroyed the estate. Their search takes them back to the 1940s when Harry, a former heir to Wharton Park, married his young society bride, Olivia, on the eve of World War II. When the two lovers are cruelly separated, the impact will be felt for generations to come.
The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White
This book is the only straight-up romance on the list, and I put it here because I thought it was interesting. The hero has OCD, which is highly unusual for a romantic lead.
James Nealy is haunted by irrational fears and inescapable compulsions. A successful software developer, he’s thrown himself into a new goal—to finally conquer the noise in his mind. And he has a plan. He’ll confront his darkest fears and build something beautiful: a garden. When he meets Tilly Silverberg, he knows she holds the key…even if she doesn’t think so.
After her husband’s death, gardening became Tilly’s livelihood and her salvation. Her thriving North Carolina business and her young son, Isaac, are the excuses she needs to hide from the world. So when oddly attractive, incredibly tenacious James demands that she take him on as a client, her answer is a flat no.
When a family emergency lures Tilly back to England, she’s secretly glad. With Isaac in tow, she retreats to her childhood village, which has always stayed obligingly the same. Until now. Her best friend is keeping secrets. Her mother is plotting. Her first love is unexpectedly, temptingly available. And then James appears on her doorstep.
Away from home, James and Tilly forge an unlikely bond, tenuous at first but taking root every day. And as they work to build a garden together, something begins to blossom between them—despite all the reasons against it.
A Place of Secrets by Rachel Hore
Auction house appraiser Jude leaves London for her dream job at Starbrough Hall, an estate in the countryside, examining and pricing the manuscripts and instruments of an eighteenth-century astronomer. She is welcomed by Chantal Wickham and Jude feels close to the old woman at once: they have both lost their husbands. Hard times have forced the Wickham family to sell the astronomer’s work, their land and with it, the timeworn tower that lies nearby. The tower was built as an observatory for astronomer Anthony Wickham and his daughter Esther, and it served as the setting for their most incredible discoveries.
Though Jude is far away from her life in London, her arrival at Starbrough Hall brings a host of childhood memories. She meets Euan, a famed writer and naturalist who lives in the gamekeeper’s cottage at the foot of the tower, where Jude’s grandfather once lived. And a nightmare begins to haunt her six-year-old niece, the same nightmare Jude herself had years ago. Is it possible that the dreams are passed down from one generation to the next? What secrets does the tower hold? And will Jude unearth them before it’s too late?
Blueprints by Barbara Delinsky
Another romance novel, but the mother-daughter relationship here is more compelling than either of the romances (both of which are rather weak, IMHO), which is why it lands on this list.
Blueprints is the story of two strong women, Caroline MacAfee, a skilled carpenter, and her daughter Jamie, a talented architect. The day after her 56th birthday, Caroline is told the network wants Jamie to replace her as the host on Gut It!, their family-based home construction TV show. The resulting rift couldn’t come at a worse time.
For Jamie, life changes overnight when, soon after learning of the host shift, her father and his new wife die in a car accident that orphans their two-year-old son. Accustomed to organization and planning, she is now grappling with a toddler who misses his parents, a fiancé who doesn’t want the child, a staggering new attraction, and a work challenge that, if botched, could undermine the future of both MacAfee Homes and Gut It!
For Caroline, hosting Gut It! is part of her identity. Facing its loss, she feels betrayed by her daughter and old in the eyes of the world. When her ex-husband dies, she is thrust into the role of caregiver to his aging father. And then there’s Dean, a long-time friend, whose efforts to seduce her awaken desires that have been dormant for so long that she feels foreign to herself.
Who am I? Both women ask, as the blueprints they’ve built their lives around suddenly need revising. While loyalties shift, decisions hover, and new relationships tempt, their challenge comes not only in remaking themselves, but in rebuilding their relationship with each other.
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.
1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies,” who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.
Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. That is until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth . . . no matter where it leads.
I hope you enjoy exploring these books!