Reviewed by Emma Crowley
April Wilson feels like a part of her is lost forever after the death of her husband. Hoping to piece herself together again, she returns to the village of Tindledale, where she spent many happy summers and the place that her Great Aunt Edith alls home.
But April is dismayed when she arrives at Orchard Cottage to find both the house and her aunt in a state of dilapidation. Edith seems to have a tenuous grasp on the present and has retreated into the past, becoming obsessed with the mysterious disappearance of her sister, Winnie, during the war.
With the help of Matt, the enigmatic local farrier and his troubled daughter, Bella, April starts to peel away the layers of neglect that have settled over the cottage to reveal the secrets beneath. Slowly, she can feel everything coming to life again, but can Orchard Cottage work its magic on her too?
I'll hold my hands up and admit I held off on beginning The Secret of Orchard Cottage, the third in the Tindledale series by Alex Brown, for a week or two after it landed on my Kindle. Two reasons made me do this, the first being (and it may sound silly) a tiny, tiny bit of apprehension on my part which really was ridiculous. I wondered whether book three could possibly live up to the sheer brilliance that was The Great Christmas Knit Off and The Great Village Show? I had the highest of expectations for this new book as did many other fans of Alex's writing. Well my fears were quickly allayed within the first chapter as I loved every minute of this magnificent story and found it increasingly difficult to leave the Kindle out of my hands. The second reason I didn't jump straight away to read this book was because I knew like with the last story I would read it all too quickly and would then be left bereft that I would have to wait months for my next Alex Brown fix.
I've loved Alex's books since she burst onto the scene with the charming Carrington's series set in a department store. They were three books which I really did enjoy but when the village of Tindledale and its characters arrived into my life Alex had me hook, line and sinker. This was a whole other level of writing and story development which blew Carrington's right out of the water. You literally gobble up the words with such a wonderful setting and such unique characters that capture a piece of your heart and don't let go until the very last word. Alex has said The Secret of Orchard Cottage was a special book to write but I have mentioned this in relation to the series before and still firmly hold that viewpoint. I sincerely hope there are more characters waiting in the wings to share their stories with us for a long time to come as I really can't get enough of this memorable village deep in the countryside and its incredible residents.
Even from reading the first few chapters you sense this is going to be a different novel from the two that have come before, there is a more serious element featured - recovery, acceptance and coming back to life. It really struck a chord with me and provided plenty of food for thought. The humour, warmth and feel good factor were still very much in evidence yet it felt Alex had now taken a further step with her writing and was going more in depth. It was as if she had waited until this point in her writing career until she was ready to write this type of book.
The story opens with a prologue - young Winnie Lovell is preparing to leave everything behind - her family, the stunning cottage and surrounding countryside and orchards where she grew up and her friends whom she loved to share a laugh or two with. She is enlisting in the F.A.N.Y - First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and embarking on a new stage in her life. She wants to do her bit for the war. Her two brothers have already enlisted and are away fighting but younger sister Edith/Edie has to remain behind. Winnie departs on a glorious summers day but leaves something behind safe and sound which may prove invaluable.
Fast forward may years later and we met our main female protagonist April Wilson. April is a different character to what Alex has written previously. There was a great depth and emotion to her and I found her really relatable. April has been through one of the worst periods of her life, a time of distress and great suffering. She has not emerged stronger nor at peace just yet but that is all about to change. Her beloved husband Gray has a lost a long battle with an illness leaving behind April and her step children twins - Nancy and Freddie who are 22 . April is cast adrift and lost, she feels vulnerable and alone and can't take that step to move on which Gray would have wanted her to do. She continues to grieve and has a deep held yearning for Gray to be by her side once more. She feels how can she continue on now that she has lost her soul mate her everything. But Tindledale and more specifically Orchard Cottage has a sense of magic and calmness an ability to offer those in need comfort and support and space and time to heal and maybe that's just what April badly needs. April has no relatives left except for her Great Aunt Edith who she has sadly neglected for far too long. A chance birthday card delivered to April sparks something in her and she knows she must return to Tindledale where she enjoyed many happy summer holidays to check on Edie now that she is muddled and confused and getting on in age. This gives April a reason,a purpose to keep on going. 'She liked taking care of people, loved it in fact, it gave her purpose and made her feel like she was making a difference'.
Right from when April arrives in Tindledale with the most humorous of scenes, the setting and characters once again worked their magic on both the reader and April. There were such beautiful descriptions of Orchard Cottage and its surrounding areas with trees bursting with ripe apples and pears ready for the picking. It was almost as if the cottage was stuck in time and had never been affected by the ravages of modern technology and I suppose the village was the same. It moved with the times as needed but still retained that sense of old world charm and community spirit. Orchard Cottage is not the place April remembers as it has become overgrown and is beginning to suffer neglect. Maybe this is the project or goal she needs to finally come to terms with all she has endured in the recent past. Edie is becoming ever more muddled yet also has some lucid moments but she believes April is Winnie coming back after so many years away. Clearly there was something amiss here and April realises a quick visit will not suffice that Winnie needs help in more ways than one.
I was delighted to see characters from the previous books slipped in throughout the story, it was like catching up with old friends even if it was only for a paragraph or two and for those who have never read about Tindledale before this could certainly be read as a stand alone as you would not be missing out on anything as this book has a very different feel from what has gone before but in a really good way. April likes to keep things locked up deep inside her but she soon comes to realise Tindledale is not a place where the residents allow this to happen. 'Everyone always knew everyone else's business. Tindledale was just that kind of place'. April certainly found this out very local as local butcher's wife Molly made herself known very quickly but she was lovely and supportive and always had a bit of welcome advice and offered companionship when needed. Hettie and Sybil once again make a reappearance as does Meg which only served to remind how much I had loved the previous stories. It was evident that April really did need to come to an acceptance that she couldn't keep all her feelings buried deep inside but rather share what was running through her mind and to come to an understanding that no one should ever suffer in silence or alone that there is always someone there to listen and support through the good times and bad as bottling things up can only lead to further distress and upset.
Over the course of the story we see a transformation in April and it was as if she was emerging from the dark times into more happier, lighter days. Tindledale offered her a cocoon, a place to reflect and contemplate before one emerges renewed and ready to take on life and all its challenges once again. April became more aware of others around her and at times her own feelings had to be pushed aside as other concerns took their place. 'Yes coming to Tindledale was a tonic, the most perfect recipe to help mover her grief for Gray to a different place in her head and her heart'. Edie was a fantastic character who still even in her nineties enjoyed an afternoon at the local tea dance and the villagers respected her and looked out for her. There still was something hanging over her from the past and the reader could sense she would not find peace or satisfaction until she resolved this. She offered very sound advice to help April overcome her grief.' The cottage will help you. Help you come to terms with your loss, give you a new life if you let it. That's its magic. Have faith, my dear, and it will make you whole again'.
Of course there had to be some handsome enigmatic males making an appearance in the book it wouldn't be good old women's fiction if they didn't. Harvey the farmer and local farrier Matt Carter feature and aim to make their affections known. But it was the storyline with Matt's daughter Bella that was a real added bonus to the overall plot. In her own way Bella helped April and vice versa. It was great to see Alex balancing multiple story lines that had real depth and substance to them which again highlighted to me how much her writing has advanced yet she never looses the sparkling wit which endured me to her novels when she first released Cupcakes at Carringtons.
I love a historical element in any book and was thrilled to see how World War Two touched the lives of the Lovell family and how secrets could stay hidden for so many years. Don't be worried that the writing style you have come to know and love from Alex has disappeared seen as she has ventured back into the past. This is not the dominant feature of the book instead it meshed beautifully with the story of April Wilson and the healing powers of Orchard Cottage. There was a mystery element to the story a sense of uncovering the past to make peace in the present.
There is no question that The Secret of Orchard Cottage is Alex Brown's best book to date she put her heart and soul into writing this amazing story making the book a real page turner. There is not one fault that I could find with the book except on my own part yet again I read it far too quickly and should have savoured it more. It contained everything I had hoped for and much more. I think these stories would make the perfect TV series shown on a Sunday afternoon or evening where we sit down and relax and enjoy it's charm before we embark on another busy week. Surely Tindledale would be a perfect talking point in the office every Monday morning? Don't hesitate to buy this wonderful charming book you'll thoroughly enjoy spending several hours in the company of April and co. Sadly I'll have to wait until November for the next instalment when a short story is published, a seasonal delight called Not Just for Christmas featuring Kitty from The Spotted Pig tearooms and Amber from the pet parlour. I am chomping at the bit to read it already.
Many thanks to Hayley Camis from Harper Collins UK for my copy of The Secret of Orchard Cottage to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.