In The Ashford Affair. author Lauren Willig does so much more than simply describe the wild Kenyan setting, the fascinating affair involved, and the absurdly decadent lifestyle of the aristocratic characters. Essentially a story of thwarted love and familial obligations set in Edwardian England and later in 1999 Manhattan, Willig's
novel tracks the relationship between two cousins and a granddaughter who must acknowledge some harsh truths about her own life and her family’s checkered past.
Time-tunneling between the past and the present, Willig’s unlikely heroine is Clementine “Clemmie” Evans, who works for a high-powered Manhattan law office and
hopes to make partner, a wish she has spent the better part of six years being close to achieving. When we first meet Clemmie, she’s about to celebrate her Granny Addie’s ninety-ninth birthday. With a sunny disposition and a devoted Addie to guide her, Clemmie is poised for success, only thankful that Addie played a pivotal role in her race to the top of her profession. Clemmie
has always turned to Addie for security and, like Grandpa Frederick, who died when Clemmie was six, Addie has always been a searing presence throughout Clemmie's childhood.
It’s hard to believe, then, that curiously ageless Addie has become so shrunken, frail, and confused, and so utterly unlike herself. She’s also reluctant to talk about mysterious cousin Bea, whom she hasn’t seen much of since 1926 when she visited her in Kenya. Although riddled with her own complicated feelings involving her infatuation with handsome cousin Jon, Clemmie gradually scrapes away at the layers of Addie and Bea’s relationship in a way that no one else can, exposing the reality that Bea needed Addie, needed her ever since that cold night in 1906 when Addie--all tousled hair and confusion--was presented to the nursery at the stately manor house of Ashford Park.
Unfolding a tangled web of love, lust and marriage, Willig’s vibrant story begins as twenty-six-year-old Addie Gillecote arrives in Kenya, her cloche hat and hair matted to her sweaty head. She recalls how beautiful Bea once was--the debutante of the decade, a denizen of Britain’s most aristocratic society. Clutching Bea’s stained and crumbled letter with its words distilling her very essence
(“Do come, I am utterly lost without you"), Addie is finally able to celebrate the fact
that she is self-supporting. The days of living in her cousin’s household and trailing in her footsteps are over.
Clemmie’s journey into Addie’s past provides the bridge back to Ashford Park. We learn that Addie was expelled from the house just as firmly as Bea, who grows older and revels in her painted elegance, drug abuse, and a series of scandalous, freewheeling love affairs that eventually
spell her downfall. Faced with a Bea stripped of affectations and looking painfully tired, only in Kenya is Addie able to succumb to the horrible, overwhelming temptation to confide. Complicating this dance of friendship is Addie’s romantic desire for Frederick Westborough, Bea’s current husband. While Frederick confesses
that he still has feelings for Addie, she’s not yet prepared for the darker side of Bea’s nature or the terrible albeit invisible scars she bears--and how Bea’s distorted view of herself will end up affecting everyone around her.
Although I wanted more scenes in Kenya along with the various personalities
who people the drama, so much in this novel reveals Willig’s talent for writing gorgeous prose as she dissects her characters' hopes and dreams. The golden stone of Ashford Park gleams in the sunshine, dominating the landscape for miles around while the tale’s numerous set-pieces add to its piquancy: Addie’s realization
that she never thought to question bossy Aunt Vera’s moral codes; Bea’s refusal to be reduced to a “drab domestic creature” who stays idly by while Marcus, her first husband, dallies with a chorus girl; Clemmie’s view of a portrait of Bea, the painting simmering with raw sex appeal and crackling with vitality; and Addie, soothed and loved by the generous Frederick, the two destined to be together even when they seem to have little control over their own precious circumstances.
Clemmie eventually learns the painful, long-hidden truths about her family and finds a connection to the horrors of the Great War, the shrouded birth of two little girls, and the rage of jealousy and unbroken love. Tracking the fragile dividing line
of memory, Addie proves to be the ultimate survivor, a girl matured to womanhood while Bea once
more falls into the harsh landscape of a deeply troubled marriage. With an added twist, all three women must learn to acknowledge the painful realities of their lives and the traumatic yet fulfilling manner of passion’s reconciliation.