This book employs some tropes currently very popular – there are two sets of couples, one in the past and one in the future, who are tied together in some way that becomes more clear as the story progresses; each couple goes through similar relationship arcs; and the narrative goes back and forth between the two time periods.
Most of this story takes place in the same Gothic house in Herne Hill, a district in south London, England. In the summer of 2009, Julia Conley discovers she has inherited this house from an aunt she barely remembers. In the summer of 1849, Imogen Grantham is a young, neglected wife feeling trapped in that same house. Both women are living lives mostly devoid of emotional connection, in Julia’s case by choice, and in Imogen’s case by circumstance. That summer, each of them is awakened in ways they never dreamed possible. But the barriers to fulfillment, especially for Imogen – a woman in the mid-19th Century – are formidable.
Discussion: There are some nice turns of prose in the book, such as this description of Gavin, a painter, trying to capture the enigmatic character of Imogen:
“His fingers itched to crumple the sketches on his easel and start again. A dozen Mrs. Granthams stared out at him in red and black chalk: Mrs. Grantham cold, Mrs. Grantham haughty, Mrs. Grantham wistful, Mrs. Grantham wary, but nowhere was there the slightest hint of amusement. He felt as though he were looking at a palimpsest, a medieval manuscript over-written in crisscrossed layers until he original message was all but lost beneath the confusion of text.”
There are also some good passages in which passion is voiced, but not acted out, making it all the more steamy for the lack of fulfillment.
One complaint, however, is that Willig uses the racist term “gyp” – in the 2009 section no less, to denote “cheating.” “Gyp” is commonly thought to be short for “gypsy”, and long used as an ethnic slur for the Romany people who immigrated from Eastern Europe. The term plays off the common stereotype of Gypsies as sneaky, thieving con artists. There is no indication the character would knowingly use such a term; it seems more a case of an author who is not aware.
Evaluation: I didn’t get as engaged with the characters as I have in books with similar dual constructions, although I can’t articulate why. But I did feel plenty of heartbreak over the situation of women in trouble in the 19th Century; they had so little recourse. As much as women still experience disparities, thank heavens we truly have come a long way (at least in some countries).
Published by St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan Publishers, 2014