By now Kearsley’s use of the same broad themes and organizational style for her books is familiar to readers, yet the books are still irresistible, much as the books of Eva Ibbotson are. When you have a good formula, you might as well capitalize upon it!
As in two of her previous books – The Winter Sea and The Firebird, the action moves back and forth between the present day and the time of the Jacobite Movement in Scotland, with parallel heroines facing similar issues and encountering similar romantic possibilities.
Jacobites were mostly Irish and Scots in the early 1700’s who were seeking to bring the exiled Catholic King James VIII back from France to take the Scottish throne. (James is Jacobus in Latin.) It was a time full of daring, conspiracy, heroism, and subterfuge, providing a great opportunity for exciting and romantic stories. (This period also serves as the backdrop for Diana Gabaldon’s popular “Outlander” series.)
The modern protagonist in this book is Sara Thomas, a currently unemployed computer programmer with a talent for numbers and ciphers. An expert on Asperger’s told Sara that she, who shared that syndrome, was just wired differently, “like the lone Mac in an office of PCs.” While that metaphor gave Sara comfort, there was no denying she was a bit easily distraught and overwhelmed, and that she preferred to work alone. So when her cousin Jacqui got her a solitary position deciphering a coded journal from 1732, she leapt at the opportunity. Jacqui went along with Sara to Chatou, outside Paris, to help her get settled in the house of the woman, Claudine, who had the journal, and who would host Sara while she worked.
The decoding that Sara is hired to do was contracted for by the author Alistair Scott, who was working on a book about the period and eager to find out what this encoded journal contained. It belonged to Mary Dundas, 21, who Alistair thinks was just “an ordinary girl” writing during extraordinary times. Alistair explains the Jacobite movement to Sara, also filling in readers with sufficient background to follow the rest of the story.
In Chatou, Sara meets the most agreeable housekeeper, Denise, as well as her handsome ex-husband, Luc Sabran, who lives on the grounds. The two share custody of their 9-year-old son Noah. Sara is attracted to Luc, but believes that people with Asperger’s can’t have successful relationships.
Back in 1732, Mary is sent on a “mission” to help camouflage the identity of a Jacobite man on the run as he tries to elude English authorities. The two are accompanied by an older female chaperon and a forbidding-looking bodyguard, the powerful, silent Mr. MacPherson. Ah, Mr. MacPherson. Here is a dark mysterious bad boy extraordinaire, the epitome of the “strong yet gentle” trope. True to the nature of such romantic characters, he is irresistible not only for his bravery and fierceness, but for his well-but-not-totally-hidden depth, caring, attentiveness, and passion.
As events in Mary’s journal unfold, she learns more about who she is and who she has the potential to be, just as Sara does in the present day. And they both discover that the future, which seemed so foreclosed, might offer possibilities for their happiness after all.
Evaluation: Sara and Luc’s (modern) story is good, but Mary and MacPherson’s 18th Century story is even better. The 18th Century characters are far more dashing, if perhaps not as realistic. (But as mentioned above, the period of the Jacobite upheavals elicited all sorts of the daring and doughtiness as exhibited by both Mary and MacPherson.) Both romances are quite moving, as is a third that the author manages to sneak into the plot. The history is well reported, and the ending has a bit of flair distinguishing it from the usual romance novel ending.
An afterword provides more details on the historical characters and circumstances reported in the book.
Published in the U.S. in paperback by Sourcebooks, 2015