Rachel Woodley has been a nursery governess in France for seven years when she receives a telegram that her beloved mother is dying. Her employer won’t give her time off to go back to England, so she quits, and hurries to her mother’s house, but she is too late. Moreover, her mother’s landlord is now evicting her, as her mother was behind in the rent.
When cleaning out her mother’s things, Rachel gets yet another unpleasant and unexpected surprise: she finds, under her mother’s pillow, a newspaper picture from just five months previously – December, 1926, of a man who is clearly her father. But her mother always had told her her father died twenty-three years ago, when Rachel was four.
Moreover, this man is not identified as Edward Woodley, botanist, whom she believed her father to be, but Edward Standish, Earl of Ardmore, shown with his daughter Olivia on his arm. She races up to Oxford to see her cousin David, who has always been a doting godfather, to find out what he knows about the truth. David astonishes her by admitting Edward Standish is her father. He confessed that her mother thought his leaving would be easier for her if she believed he had died.
Upset, she turns to leave, and runs into Simon Montfort, a former tutee of David’s, who had overheard what happened. As he shows her out, he explains he has connections and can help her meet her father. He offers to introduce her to the Standish’s social set as a Vera Merton, a distant cousin of his. He further arranges to house her at his mother’s empty flat and bring her socially appropriate clothes belonging to his (also absent) sister. He even sets up an appointment for her at a salon so she can get a hairdo more suitable to a society lady than a governess.
While even Rachel references the story of “Pygmalion,” there are more complications to the story than George Bernard Shaw’s play. The Great War has ended, but hostilities still loom on the horizon and occupy the thoughts of many of the characters. Everyone in the social set to which “Vera” gains entry accepts her readily, but they all have shared histories and secrets to which she is not privy. And what Rachel thinks she now knows is only the tip of the iceberg. Her world is indeed upended, but not at all in the way she (or we) anticipated.
Discussion: This turned out to be a good story, not as predictable as it seemed it might be in the beginning. The author manages to limn Rachel as naive and judgmental without making her unlikeable, and is adept at evoking the appearance of superficial decadence of the monied set:
“Cece dragged in deeply on her cigarette, trailing ash and ennui.”
I liked too how she had her characters query the nature of memory and of truth. Rachel’s insights about her recollections from her early childhood were especially appealing:
“Life, at four, had been a sea of knees and ankles, chair legs and the undersides of tables. She wished, desperately, that she had paid more attention, that she had lifted her head and looked up.”
Evaluation: The further I read, the more I got pulled into the story. It turned out to be an entertaining and engrossing book.
Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2015