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Book Review: Greening of a Heart by Stepheny Houghtlin

It All Happens in Burford

In Greening of a Heart, Stepheny Houghtlin shows us not just one heart, but several that need healing.  All of them are part of or tied to the restoration of the garden of the vicarage of St. John the Baptist Church in the Catswold Village of Burford. Burford and the church are  real. You might want to check out the websites linked to so you can picture the setting before you read this. These sites say nothing  about a garden. The church, however is the setting for some important scenes, since Hannah and Martin live in the vicarage.

Photo of St. John the Baptist Church in Burford courtesy of Tom Bastin, CC by 2.0
Photo courtesy of Tom Bastin, CC by 2.0

Tom Bastin  took the picture of the church St. John The Baptist Church you see above. You can also see many other scenes from Burford  in his Flicker Album Burford.

The Cast of Major Characters

  • Hannah Winchester, an American: The vicars’ wife and mother of Anne and Christopher
  • The Reverend Martin Winchester: Vicar of St. John the Baptist Church, father of Anne and Christopher
  • Malcolm Thomas: Martin’s old college friend, now also his Bishop
  • Brother Gregory: Monk at St. Edward’s House and spiritual counselor to Martin
  • Anne: Daughter of Hannah and Martin, wife of Geoffrey Bentley, mother of James and Kate
  • Geoffrey Charles Bentley IV:  Anne’s husband and father of James and Kate
  • Christopher: Brother of Anne and son of Martin and Hannah, single
  • Henry Bernard: On a research sabbatical from Kew Gardens in London.  Hannah hired him to help with the heavy work in the garden during its restoration. Single
  •  Madeline Thompson, widow: An old college friend of Hannah’s who is Hannah’s sounding board in the book.  She is a catalyst in helping many characters find direction
  • Christine Bennett: Never married, older parishioner, critical of Hannah’s garden restoration. Lives across the road from the vicarage and has her own garden. She is no longer speaking to Hannah since garden work began.
  • Robert K Myers: Deceased former Vicar of St. John the Baptist Church, who originally designed the garden Hannah is restoring. Close friend of Christine.
  • Emma Barksdale: Another parishioner, close friend of Christine and Hannah. She doesn’t understand why Christine is so critical of Hannah’s garden restoration project
  • Samuel White: Senior Warden at St. John the Baptist Church, single, close friend of   Martin and Hannah.  He appears to be secretly in love with Hannah
  • Lucy and Randy Talbot:  Henry lives with them in Burford while he works for Hannah
  • Many men who are working to restore the garden and coach house, and their wives and children
  • Other parishioners, including Lynn Spencer, who likes to make trouble with her gossip, and her husband Mark, who is much kinder
  • Margaret Clover: New in town, just bought the Bay Tree Inn. She plans to use it to serve healthy meals such as those that helped cure her cancer. Divorced
  • Caroline Clover: Margaret’s daughter, who will be the chef at the Bay Tree Inn

A  Troubled Marriage

 

Review: Greening of a Heart by Stepheny Houghtlin
Photo in Public Domain Courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

As the book opens, we learn that Hannah and Martin Winchester have a troubled marriage. Martin is burned out as a priest and a husband, since he has let his work dominate their lives. Hannah is wondering what happened to the man who courted her and laughed with her when they were first married. Now he rarely laughs at all. They now sleep in separate bedrooms. The author  describes it this way:

“The image of one of her garden walls, where stacked stone had shifted and sagged over time, reminded her of their relationship.”

Although they shared a common faith as members  of the Church of England, they did not express it the same  way. Hannah’s family had been “high church” with services closer to those in the Catholic Church.  Martin was “low church” and did not believe in icons and incense, or “smells and bells.” This  was occasionally a source of conflict.

Whereas Hannah had been an  independent American woman while in college, now, with an empty nest, Martin seems to think she is incapable of managing her life without his input. He has become stern and impatient with her.  He is no longer interested in sharing memories of their courting days and other carefree times, as they had in the early years of their marriage. There had been no intimacy for so long that Hannah had begun to think of Martin almost as a guest in her home, more a priest than a husband.

The Role of The Garden In Greening of the Heart

Hannah’s Garden Restoration Project

Review: Greening of a Heart by Stepheny Houghtlin

The book begins in the vicarage garden, with Hannah pulling weeds. She aspires to gain recognition as an authority on plants someday. She has accumulated a library of gardening books and has visited other gardens whenever there was time.

She is in the process of restoring the garden the late previous vicar, Robert Myers, designed and planted.  She is hoping that as she works on the garden restoration, it will bring her closer to Martin again. She expected they would make decisions together, but he shows little interest, preferring to let Hannah make the decisions.

Martin’s Dreaded Lunch Date

Martin is about to leave for a lunch date with Malcolm, his friend and bishop. Malcolm had called Hannah earlier with  concerns about Martin’s health and state of mind. Hannah knows Malcolm is going to tell Martin to take a leave of absence. She also knows Martin will be disconsolate after the meeting.

Henry Arrives in Burford

Meanwhile, Henry Bernard is on his way to Burford from London to meet Hannah. He hopes she will hire him to help with the garden restoration. He is  also looking for information about a photograph he’d found while cleaning up his  grandmother’s home after she died. The photo is of a young priest who is his own mirror image.  He arrives in time to have a quick look inside the church before meeting Hannah, but Hannah is already there watering the altar flowers and she had seen him come in. She noticed he was touching a remembrance plaque on the wall, which she later discovered  was for Robert Myers.

Review: Greening of a Heart by Stepheny Houghtlin
Adapted from photo of Kew Gardens found on Morgue File

She engages Henry in conversation and he says he’s her 2 pm  appointment. Henry tells her he’s taking a sabbatical from his work at Kew Gardens to study the influence of clergy gardeners on the development of English gardens. People believed Robert Myers had integrated spiritual elements into his gardening activities. Henry said many clergymen considered gardening both work and prayer.

Henry impresses Hannah she and hires him after negotiating terms of employment. Hannah tells Henry he’s an answer to her prayers. He silently disagrees, thinking that it wasn’t her prayers, but his own detective work that  brought him to her.

Martin Returns Home after Lunch Date

After Henry leaves, Hannah returns home to find Martin is back from his lunch date and he’s devastated, as she expected him to be. Malcolm  has sent him to take a course in Jerusalem that will be part of a three-month leave from his ministry.  Malcolm hopes  this will restore Martin’s health, energy, and heart for preaching again. Hannah hopes it will restore her husband to her.

Who is  Henry Really?

Why did he want to come to Burford?  More than one character in the book raises this question. Anne seemed not to  trust Henry. Lynn Spencer chided  Hannah for hiring someone she knew nothing about. Hannah, however, had no reason to be suspicious and she let the criticism roll off  her. A savvy reader will have a pretty good idea early in the book who Henry is,  but the author does not completely reveal it until much later.

The Garden Party

Will There Be Trouble?

Hannah goes back to preparations for her garden party the next Saturday. She has invited everyone to the Winchesters’ Garden Opening.  Hannah is hoping there will not be trouble, since she knows some parishioners have been upset with her project. Christine Bennett, usually not a critical person,   has been most vocal in her complaints. She had accused Hannah of ruining Robert Myers’ garden, and Hannah had reminded her that  it no longer belonged to Robert Myers.  Christine had not spoken to her since.  Emma Barksdale, a friend of both,  had told Christine to behave at the party. Madeline has warned Henry to steer clear of Christine.

Review: Greening of a Heart by Stepheny Houghtlin
Ready for Garden Party

For the most part, the party turns out to be a success as , Madeline, Hannah’s oldest friend, had come to help. A few incidents had marred it, however.   She and Martin had quarreled just before the party because he thought he needed to tell her how to act with the guests. Henry has impressed Madeline,  but Hannah’s daughter Anne wants him fired because she had dated him years ago and he had left her alone at a party he’d invited her to.

Hannah Speaks, Martin Prays, but Not Everyone is Happy

Hannah welcomes everyone. She explains that she restored the garden to honor the memory of her mother who had died ten years ago, and that her inheritance from her mother was helping to pay for the restoration.  The guests  applaud, but Christine does not join in. Martin  prays for everyone  involved with the garden restoration and for the future ministry of the church.

Hannah then joins Lynn and Mark Spencer at the punch table and Lynn immediately gets on Hannah’s case about hiring “a complete stranger” to work for her.  Mark tries to intervene, but Lynn keeps meddling. Hannah justifies her decision to hire Henry by explaining his qualifications. Lynn still thinks Hannah shouldn’t have hired someone she knows nothing about.

The guests stop to shake Martin’s hand as they are leaving, and Christine isn’t able to hide her negative feelings. The other guests seem pleased.
Review: Greening of a Heart by Stepheny Houghtlin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The day after the party, Henry takes a bouquet of daffodils to Christine’s house to try to get acquainted with her and try to find out why she is so negative. The reader sees a new side of Christine during this visit.

More Than the Garden Grows

Madeline’s words act as catalysts to the ideas and actions of many characters in the book. Madeline was the one who encouraged Hannah to restore the garden. At one point before the garden party,  Hannah  tells Madeline, “I’ve lost touch with my own dreams and it scares me. Growing old is bad enough, but I wake up and think of wasted days where nothing I’ve done is of any consequence…. I need to reinvent myself.”

Review: Greening of a Heart by Stepheny Houghtlin

Madeline spins a tale about a  driver telling a couple of strangers he is lost. One of the men responded, ‘No, you’re not, you’re here.’

Madeline adds,  “If we spend our days always thinking of what we’ve missed, what might have been,  we miss the now of our lives, too. You aren’t lost, Hannah, you’re here. In this moment, we’re here, looking at this beautiful garden emerging around us. Perhaps …being lost is not a bad thing, but an opportunity to notice new places you have never been, actually looking at the things you pass by. “

Characters Grow as Part of the Community

Greening of the Heart is a story of people interacting and growing through the process. The church community and those in the wider community of the village around it begin to know themselves better. They make decisions, face unacknowledged truths about themselves,  and find solutions to their problems through their conversations with others and by observing their behavior  .

Book Review: Greening of a Heart by Stepheny Houghtlin

An example of this is Anne’s marriage to Geoffrey. The reader sees immediately that the marriage has severe problems. It is only as Anne  observes the relationship between other couples that she realizes how troubled her marriage is. Geoffrey is a snob who has tried to keep Anne from her family and any friends that won’t enhance his social standing. He also stifles Anne and their children.

Although Anne has observed the growing distance between her parents, she realizes that Geoffrey’s life is all about impressing people he considers important, whereas her father’s life is about serving his congregation to the extent there’s nothing left for his wife. Geoffrey is harsh with her and with the children, who withdraw in his presence. Anne has smiled through Geoffrey’s rants and cried when she was alone. Anne never saw her father even say a harsh word  to her mother.

She decides to seek counsel from her mother and she finally reconciles with Henry for the sake of her mother.  It is her brother Christopher that motivates her to heed Madeline’s advice to get a job so she can be self-sufficient. She decides to do it.

Review: Greening of a Heart by Stepheny Houghtlin

Anne sees how loving the relationships between the workmen and their wives are. She observes the other young couples expressing affection and treating their spouses with respect. Anne’s observations and conversations with her new friends and her mother help her see that she must change her interactions with Geoffrey. How that relationship will turn out is still up in the air at the end of the book.

We see more examples of growth through interaction  throughout the book.  The relationship between Henry and Christine leads to the reconciliation between Christine and Hannah. Madeline’s words influence almost all the main characters.

Madeline is  good at discerning who can help whom and then doing her best to bring them together and plant scenarios in their minds until they see new possibilities. This results in the idea that the garden might produce the vegetables used by the Clovers in the kitchen at the  Bay Tree Inn. Later Hannah comes up with the idea of using that relationship between the inn and the vicarage garden to gain added revenue for both by giving garden tours in cooperation with Margaret Clover, ending with lunch back at the inn.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Martin is interacting with a new community of people. Their influence, and a frank letter from Hannah,  are helping him see himself and his marriage in a new light, and he wants to save it. 

 

Book Review: Greening of a Heart by Stepheny Houghtlin

My Recommendation

I got very involved in this book. I began to really care about these new book friends. If you enjoy books that are more character than plot based, if you like watching people examine their lives with a mind to understand themselves and others, you will find this a rewarding read. You will see people falling in love, reconciling their differences, and experiencing spiritual and marital  renewal through relationships begun in a garden. 

Book Review: Greening of a Heart by Stepheny Houghtlin
Book Review: Greening of a Heart by Stepheny Houghtlin

If you thrive on relationships with people and like to observe positive changes in their lives, you will want to read Greening of the Heart. It will make you think about your own life and relationships as you watch the drama unfold. If you are also a gardener, this book will have an added layer of meaning for you. If you enjoyed reading the Mitford Series or Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven by Fanny Flagg, I would also expect you to find Greening of the Heart appealing. If you haven’t read any of these, what are you waiting for? You won’t want to miss any of these books.