On the surface, “The Witch of Willow Hall” by Hester Fox appears to be the perfect fall read. The book jacket may lead readers to believe there will be covens, magic and mystery. The story, in the end, leans more toward the romance end of the genre spectrum than it does toward a hard thriller or a skin-crawling horror.
Set two centuries after the Salem Witch Trials, “The Witch of Willow Hall” follows Lydia on a journey of self-discovery. As the middle daughter, Lydia often feels lost between her older assertive sister, Catherine, and her adorable younger sister, Emeline. Fox gives us brief glimpses of Lydia’s powers which is one family secret and leads readers through the first chapters of the novel.
Readers, however, will slowly discover another family secret that is possibly more scandalous and rivals some of the seediest V.C. Andrews plots. Fox layers these two family secrets, leading readers through an intricate dance wondering which secret drove the family from their wealthy standing in Boston to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere Massachusetts.
Adding to the tension, both Catherine and Lydia are seeking husbands. And time, in their minds, is running short. When two marriageable suitors turn up at the family’s doorstep, Catherine, being older, more assertive and slightly more desperate, seems to out maneuver Lydia at every turn. It will be obvious to the reader which suitor Lydia desires even if it takes her an awfully long time to verbalize it.
The romance plot line in “The Witch of Willow Hall” falls very much in line with Victorian and Georgian romances. Think Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Compared to the events whirling around the family secrets, the romance plot line is low-key and sweet. It is a nice contrast to the excitement, darkness and manipulation happening elsewhere in the story.
Fox takes her time in revealing all the truth behind the secrets to the characters. She has certainly mastered giving readers enough breadcrumbs to start putting the pieces together as each secret reaches its big reveal. When the characters finally get to their personal discovery moments, discerning readers will relish in the fact they figured out the truth just before the characters did.
“The Witch at Willow Hall” is a refreshing surprise. Fox creates a suspenseful atmospheric story that weaves family drama, romance and the supernatural. The end result is a beautiful novel that goes beyond being about witches and ghosts.