I've mentioned in previous reviews that there are certain fictional attributes - most things that would be considered 'gothic', old country houses or castles, solitary narrators who may or may not be obsessed with books - that I'm a complete sucker for, and the presence of any of these elements in a story is likely to skew my opinion in a positive direction. With this book, I have realised that 'lonely seaside towns in winter' can be added to that list. You can't go far wrong with those, and The Winter Sea's setting of a Scottish coastal village overlooked by a ruined castle is just perfect.
The story starts with Carrie, a historical novelist, driving along the Scottish coast en route to the christening of her publisher's baby. She sees the aforementioned castle, Slains, on the horizon and is instantly drawn to it. Having previously suffered writer's block with the book she's attempting to write about the Jacobite invasion of 1708, she finds herself so inspired by Slains that she impulsively decides to relocate to the neighbouring town, Cruden Bay, to work on the book. However, as she does more research into the background of her story, she starts to realise that what she is writing (much of it drawn from extraordinarily vivid dreams) appears to be historically accurate down to the last detail. The chapters alternate between Carrie's present-day life and her historical story, which centres on a young girl called Sophia who visits Slains in the early 18th century.
When I started reading this, I was a bit sceptical because of the amount of readers who have categorised it as a romance book. And, yes, romance is a strong element of the story - if you completely detest it (rather than simply being generally dubious, like me) it's likely you will scoff at a lot of the content. The incidences of 'love at first sight', and the speed at which relationships progress, are markedly unrealistic. However, if you can cope with a certain degree of syrupy romance, you'll find the book has more than enough charm and intelligence to make up for it. The historical detail is interesting and feels authentic, and I love the way it's been woven into the story through Carrie's conversations with the residents of Cruden Bay. The stuff about 'genetic memory' is silly but fantastically enjoyable and compelling. On top of this, I don't think there was a single character I didn't like or believe in, the result being that I was heartened and cheered up by the happy ending(s) rather than seeing them as corny.
What you have here is a book that is more than the sum of its parts because of the author's skill in binding it all together. It's light as a feather, but a cut above chick lit and generic whodunnits, and I'd definitely recommend it as a holiday, plane or beach read. From the synopses I've read, it sounds as though the author's other books are very similar plot-wise, but I would certainly read another for some light relief. I would put them on the same shelf as the books of Kate Morton (Kearsley's not quite as good as Morton, though) and Carol Goodman - unlikely to win any top literary awards, but smart, involving and rather delightful to read.
(NB: I know this was published as Sophia's Secret in the UK and I shouldn't be using the US title... but I much prefer this title (why on earth did they change it? What part of 'The Winter Sea' did they think us Brits wouldn't understand?!) and also, the cover of the UK version is absolutely AWFUL.)