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The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan

Sheridan skilfully mixes real historical figures and events with fictional ones to weave her story of two very different women and the friendship that takes root between them. 1822, and newly widowed Elizabeth is uprooted from London, moving to live with her late husband’s elderly aunt in Edinburgh where she knows no-one. Faced with settling in to her new home and life, and without the means to create a different life for herself, she offers her services as an artist to the neighbouring Botanic Gardens, recording its rare specimens, in particular the Agave Americana – a plant which is expected to bloom imminently, an event which occurs only once every few decades, generating a few highly sought after seeds that will need to be protected. It’s her fascination for the Botanic Gardens and its plants, that leads Elizabeth to meet Belle, a well-read, intelligent, vivacious and fiercely independent young woman with a fascination for botany and a flair and passion for the highly lucrative, if somewhat shadowy,  art of perfume-making. But Belle is not completely honest with Elizabeth about her identity and her underlying reason driving her interest in botany, and Edinburgh is a not a city in which it is easy to keep secrets for long. And, it would seem that Belle is not the only person with secrets.

Real figures and events lend weight and depth to the novel and it’s well worth reading the author’s notes at the end of the book, detailing where she has borrowed from history or added her own fictional characters and events. Edinburgh and the botanic gardens are vividly drawn and play a central role in the novel, providing the backdrop for the storyline to unfold.

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