Over the past few years, I’ve found that I tend to go through phases when it comes to the books I choose. For a while, I only wanted to read historical fiction set in Europe. Then I moved on to thrillers. After that, I was back to historical fiction, but this time set in Asia or Africa. Now I find myself drawn to stories with a bit more fantasy to them, and one of the many books I was drawn to at a book store last fall was The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox. The elegant, ghostly cover caught my eye, while the old-fashioned, uneven pages ensnared my intrigue.
Set in 1820s Massachusetts, The Witch of Willow Hall tells the story of Lydia Montrose, a young woman who doesn’t understand the power she possesses. She moves out of Boston to the rural forrest with her parents, older sister Catherine, and younger sister Emeline. Mysterious circumstances caused them to flee, and tragedy and ghosts seem to follow them even to the titular Willow Hall. But even with all the troubles, romance still blooms between Lydia and her handsome neighbor – and father’s business partner – Mr. John Barrett.
From the very first chapters, I adored The Witch of Willow Hall. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on what had me so enraptured, but eventually I knew: Reading this novel made me feel like a teenager again. The book felt easy and comforting, the kind of story that keeps me up past my bedtime, reading by the light of my bedside lamp in a silent house. I’ve always loved reading, but I haven’t felt this consumed in over a decade.
The book focuses on a teenaged girl, and in spite of plenty of harrowing events and taboo subjects, there’s a certain innocence and quietness to it. Some booksellers and libraries have categorized The Witch of Willow Hall as a young adult novel; others categorize it with adult fiction. It fits comfortably within either. It’s neither too mature or risqué for younger readers, nor too childish or simplistic for older readers.
The protagonists are likable and often relatable. I admit that I identified with Lydia in a few ways – shyness and obsession with reading among them. Mr. Barrett is a traditional male lead – honorable, strong, quiet, and loyal. Even the antagonists – such as Catherine Montrose and Cyrus Thompson – have redeeming qualities. They’re often not good to Lydia, and in the case of Cyrus can be unpredictable, but the reader can understand their perspectives. They have reasons behind their actions, making them believable characters.
Much of The Witch of Willow Hall centers on the budding romance between Lydia and Mr. Barrett. But set in the 1820s, there is plenty of social etiquette to slow things down. The pacing and historic setting make this novel feel like a classic romance, but of course with a bit of witchcraft thrown in. There is always plenty happening, though the gentle writing and quiet pace prevent the story from feeling too rushed.
However, events did pick by the final quarter of the book, and I ended up reading the last 75 pages in one rushed sitting. I haven’t gotten through an ending with such excitement in a long time, and it was exhilarating to be so enamored with this story. I needed to know how it ended, and yet I wanted the story to continue for another hundred pages.
The Witch of Willow Hall is a lovely, captivating novel. It feels more romance and gothic family drama than fantasy – indeed, the witch element doesn’t play nearly as large a role as I’d expected. Even so, it was an absorbing read, and I look forward to seeing more from Hester Fox. This is a promising debut, and I’m excited to read The Widow of Pale Harbor once it’s out this fall.