by Sally Gardner
Set in Regency London, The Weather Woman unfolds the story of Neva Tarshin, orphaned at three years old and adopted by a skilled clockmaker, Victor Friezland, and his housekeeper, Elise.
Neva is supremely intelligent and possesses a unique, and potentially lucrative talent, she can predict the weather. But, how can she share her remarkable gift and foresight as a woman?...
Like its heroine, The Weather Woman is a beautifully imagined and unconventional novel written in poised and elegant prose. Part One opens in early 1789 and effortlessly transports the reader straight onto the ice of the Thames Frost Fair. It’s immediately evocative and the reader instantly has a sense of curious little Neva.
Even at this early stage, there is a delicate yet definitive air of magical realism and a sprinkling of the supernatural. It’s intriguing, atmospheric, and strangely foreboding, enhanced by the darkly disconcerting chess-playing bear who becomes an evolving thread of symbolism connecting the beginning of the novel to the end.
Although The Weather Woman is Neva’s story, her narrative is driven and enabled by a wonderful wealth of engaging, authentic, and well-realized characters, each with their own journey and all richly brought to life.
Mr. Ratchet and Old Bones are particularly well-depicted. Elise develops into an interestingly textured individual and Mrs. Dent is appropriately flamboyant yet fiercely resourceful and staunchly loyal.
Neva is a deeply fascinating protagonist whose trajectory and personality never fail to convince. Full of depth and originality, she can be frustrating, but her intensity and impish, otherworldly spirit are compelling. Victor Friezland’s nuanced, avuncular depiction perfectly complements her portrayal.
Several plot strands waver out from the main narrative with some returning and others resolving. They all work well, bringing engrossing conspiracies, twists, and dramas. The dynamic that develops between the degenerately debauched Lord Wardell and the depraved yet pathetic Aubrey is, initially, unexpected but Gardner steers it with subtle ambiguity and, in the end, a decided touch of pathos.
As Neva begins to explore life through her deliciously inventive male alter-ego, Eugene Jonas, her harmoniously close relationship with Victor is gently threatened. Although expertly crafted with the very best intentions, his brilliant automaton creation for Neva to be disguised within has reduced her extraordinary ability to mere entertainment.
Indeed, through the Regency era lens, Gardner gently navigates issues that are relevant today, making The Weather Woman feel fresh to read. Blended families, neuro-divergence, gender identity, and women’s rights are at the forefront of Neva’s narrative whilst, in the background, is the mutual attraction between her and Henri that develops to become central toward the end of the novel.
Occasionally, before the surprisingly candid scenes between them in Hastings, the pace loses momentum but this is rebalanced and, as the plot and its tangents quicken, there are some quietly powerful and suspenseful scenes when events and characters dovetail or collide.
Gardner’s descriptive writing excels with the backdrop of Regency London. Thoroughly researched and full of geographical and historical insight, the setting is as integral to The Weather Woman as Neva’s capabilities. There are lovely, whimsical flourishes such as the eccentric Friezland house which is wondrously conjured without being overdone.
Vivid and beguiling, The Weather Woman is highly recommended.