WORLD WAR I, KENYAN COFFEE, AND ROSETTI
An unseasonable stormy day? Time to curl up with a good book? Lauren Willig’s The Ashford Affair is the perfect choice. The novel’s time frame spans nearly a hundred years, beginning in England just before the onslaught of World War I, moving to Kenya after the war, and concluding in America as the twentieth century draws to a close. Throughout the pages, the narrative moves back and forth, layering the trials and tribulations of one generation atop the events and encounters of another.
When Addie, the daughter of a second son disgraced by his marriage to a bohemian woman, is suddenly orphaned, her aristocratic uncle and his wife take her into their ancestral home. Lord and Lady Ashford treat little Addie indifferently, but their daughter Bea instantly befriends her cousin. Beautiful blonde Bea grows up to be a glamorous magnet for men, while the less dynamic Addie hovers in the background. Despite their differences, however, the two remain friends, cherishing childhood memories while moving into a post-war future that can’t possibly match their pre-war expectations.
That future involves Kenya, where Bea and her husband, Frederick, own a coffee plantation, Ashford Redux. The circumstances of their marriage and the details of how they came to settle so far from regal England unfold gradually in the pages of The Ashford Affair. Addie’s role gains clarification, too. The reader knows from the outset that some mystery surrounds these people, but the details are blurred at first, becoming clear only when one of Frederick’s granddaughters begins to investigate her family story.
This is the part of The Ashford Affair that takes place in 1999 when an elderly Addie mistakenly calls her granddaughter “Bea.” Puzzled, Clemmie questions her grandmother, who is too confused to answer coherently, and then begins to probe the family secrets. Neither her mother nor her aunt is willing to disclose very much, but Clemmie is persistent. What makes Clemmie’s pursuit all the more engaging is the fact that her life, in many ways, reflects facets of her grandmother’s, her mother’s, and her aunt’s. Willig reconstructs the generations’ parallel actions and emotions in subtly smart ways. She does so in healthy non-neurotic ways, too. Her characters are flawed, indeed, but not horrifically so, more like real-life men and woman than cardboard fictional caricatures.
One more smart ingredient of The Ashford Affair is its recurring echo of “Goblin Market,” Christina Rosetti’s nineteenth-century narrative poem about two sisters, one blonde, one dark, one seduced by the evil temptations of the goblin market, the other passively acquiescent for a while, the one dying from eating the tainted fruits of the goblin market, the other desperately trying to save her beloved sister. Addie loves the poem and frequently reads it to Bea when they are young. Later, Willig refers to “Goblin Market” only occasionally but always in an edifying way. To anyone who reads The Ashford Affair, I recommend reading “Goblin Market,” too. The poem’s verses make the novel’s chapters all the richer.
I read The Ashford Affair almost without pause. From the outset, the reader senses the nub of the mystery surrounding the two cousins, but the denouement is nonetheless surprising. Sometimes I’m uneasy when a novel ends; sometimes I wish an author had found a better way to conclude connected stories. This time I was totally satisfied by the fates of these flesh-and-blood creations.
One final recommendation: do purchase an edition of The Ashford Affair that includes “A Note from the Author.” It’s the perfect end to a perfect rainy day read. – Ann Ronald
Also available from Lauren Willig: The Glass Ocean; The English Wife; The Summer Country; The Mischief of the Mistletoe; The Other Daughter; The Betrayal of the Blood Lily; The Mask of the Black Tulip; The Orchid Affair; The Garden Intrigue; The Temptation of the Night Jasmine; The Seduction of the Crimson Rose; The Lure of the Moonflower; The Deception of the Emerald Ring; That Summer; The Passion of the Purple Plumeria; The Mask of the Midnight Manzanilla; Two L; All the Ways We Said Goodbye; Secret History of Pink Carnation.
Please support your local Independent Bookstore and your Public Library.