My husband picked up The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox for me at the library because he knows how much I love my witch lit books (yes, what a gem!). What I was not expecting when I started reading was a marvelous GHOST story. As if the tantalizing antique drama coupled with romance is enough to draw one’s attention, there’s more; it’s filled with haunts and frights. Hester Fox has blended genres in this book, adding the perfect amount of spookiness to make it an eerie, yet delightful historical fiction read.
The Montrose family has just relocated from Boston to New Oldbury because scandal caused their reputation in society to be tarnished. While the town and their estate seem rather sleepy and boring, more is lurking beneath the surface than they realize. Though it does take quite a bit of time to uncover the secrets of the energies in play.
Sisters Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline are doing their best to adapt to life in their new town. Catherine, the eldest, desperately misses her life in Boston and is keen on finding a husband. Meanwhile, Emeline, the youngest, is focused on seeking mermaids in the nearby pond. In the middle, Lydia does her best to balance her relationship with both sisters.
Lydia and Emeline’s connection runs deep; it’s as though they are intimately connected in mind and soul. Whereas Lydia and Catherine’s relationship has always felt a bit tenuous and strained by competition and jealousies. Catherine is very confident, flirtatious, and self-centered, while quiet Lydia prefers a good book and little attention. When the dashing Mr. Barrett, their father’s new business partner, comes into the picture, both girls have their feelings stirred.
However, Catherine turns her attention towards Mr. Barrett’s friend, Mr. Pierce, leaving the romance between Mr. Barrett and Lydia to develop quietly, slowly. But that’s not the only thing blossoming in Lydia’s life; she’s being haunted by ghosts in her new home. There’s one who paces outside the window, another that wails throughout the night. Warnings from an ancestor beyond the veil tell her to be cautious, danger is afoot.
When tragedy strikes the Montrose family, Lydia’s life is turned upside. The hauntings start happening more frequently, and there is no one for Lydia to confide in about what she’s experienced. Meanwhile, her family is falling apart: her mother is ill and Catherine is keeping a secret that could utterly destroy everyone’s livelihood. Reality and the unknown are pushing Lydia to wit’s end.
At least she has Mr. Barrett to look after her. But as if all of the family demands, secrets, and hauntings aren’t plentiful enough to keep Lydia on her toes, her ex-fiancé Cyrus is desperately trying to marry her to save his family’s fortune. Willing to get what he wants at any cost, Cyrus threatens to destroy everything Lydia cares for by revealing Catherine’s secret – and one of her own – if she doesn’t agree to be his wife.
Oh yes, Lydia is also having a come-to moment about her own power. Recalling an incident where she harmed a young boy that had ruthlessly killed her pet bunny, Lydia must reckon with her own power she always had tried to deny. She’s strong, but has no one to guide her in understanding who she truly is or how to control the force within.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, it’s true! The Montrose family is filled with hidden secrets and the estate is filled with ghostly inhabitants. But what I love about the book is how Fox keeps a very tight storyline. Everyone is in the midst of their own crisis, but the interplay between the characters is brilliant. The book is never confusing or hard to follow, and the build-up makes it a real page turner.
Fox is truly gifted in the way she’s able to transport readers back in time. I felt immersed in the time period of 1820, from the decorum to the speech of the characters. The chillingly haunted aspects were very believable. This isn’t a far-fetched ghost story; it’s almost plausible for those who believe.
Whereas many stories about witches focus on magic as the theme, this was not the case for The Witch of Willow Hall. Though, towards the very end, Lydia realizes her talent with herbs, for the most part her power just keeps attracting ghosts hoping to communicate. I feel like this aspect of witchcraft, the openness to the spiritual realm, is often overlooked, and therefore I was glad that Fox focused on it. It also made for a scarier story than most witch-lit books.
There were little mysteries along the way to discover too, such as what the scandal was that made the Montrose family flee Boston and who the ghosts haunting the Willow Hall estate are. All the while, readers are taken on the journey of a heartfelt love story between Mr. Barrett and Lydia – don’t worry this is not a spoiler. It’s pretty obvious from the get-go, even though they have their twists and turns.
One very shocking event happens mid-story that completely changes the pace of things. I definitely shed some tears, as the sorrow was immense and Fox had done a fantastic job of building emotional connection with the characters. My heart broke right along with the Montrose family.
So there you have it: tragedy, love, mystery, witchcraft, and redemption. Sounds like the ideal blend for a book, right? I think so! The Witch of Willow Hall will definitely be high on my recommendation list. And I was excited to realize that Fox has written three more books since this one was published. I just requested The Widow of Pale Harbor and The Orphan of Cemetery Hill. Then in February, Fox’s next book is being released: A Lullaby for Witches. I’m looking forward to reading that too!
Alanna Kali is an astrologer, numerologist, and pioneer spirit that loves to explore life through the lens of depth psychology. She has a passion for studying the humanities and social trends. Her academic work is centered upon reuniting body, mind, and spirit through eco-psychology. She loves reading, spending time in nature, and travel.