The crux of Gable’s gorgeous novel is the identity of the notorious Duchess of Marlborough,
but what truly drew me to this book was the haunting relationship between its two main protagonists, Laurel Haley and her daughter, Annie. The story begins in Middleburg, Virginia,
and moves to Banbury, England, then finally to Paris, where both Annie and Laurel are forced to question many of their assumptions about love, marriage, and the reality of the world around them. Alternating between 2001 just after the 9/11 terror attacks and 1973, right at the height of the Vietnam War, Gable’s mother and daughter
are thrust into a journey centering on the identity of Annie’s father and on a mysterious blue book with faded gold words on its cover.
Discovered in her mother’s luggage on the eve of her departure to Banbury, Annie sees something familiar about the book, but also something “more distant by the hour.” The book is about the Missing Duchess of Marlborough and offers up an exciting premise over what actually might have become of her. Upon her husband’s death, this woman who dated
kings and princes and statesmen--and whose real name was Gladys Deacon--left Blenheim Palace at dawn and vanished into “the pink horizon,” never to be seen again.
For Annie, who is about to be married to Erik--a sweet Southern military boy
en route to Afghanistan--the mystery surrounding the Duchess’s identity and who actually wrote the book takes on a whole new meaning. Annie feels spiritually connected, perhaps even linked to the details within its pages. Flirting just around its edges, Annie decides to accompany Laurel to Banbury.
In this quaint, bucolic English market town, a woman with spooky blue eyes is rumored to be the long-lost Duchess. This woman, who calls herself Mrs. Spencer, constantly runs helter-skelter around the village, shooting guns and shouting obscenities.
By day, Laurel is away on business, ostensibly to shore up “a land deal,” so Annie is largely left to her own devices
and becomes an amateur sleuth. At the local pub she meets Gus, who tells her about Pru, a
bookish 19-year-old American woman had left university to get married until her fiancé, Charlie, was killed in the Vietnam War. Answering the call for a much-needed personal assistant for cultured, older women, Pru
travels from America to Banbury and to The Grange, where she’s placed in the employ of the wildly eccentric, crazy-eyed Mrs. Spencer, who still refuses to believe she’s the long-lost Duchess. From her very first days at The Grange, amid the trash and broken furniture, where “there’s enough animals to start a petting zoo,” Pru begins what might possibly be the fool’s errand of a lifetime.
Handyman Tom, a displaced Pole, is rumored to be Mrs. Spencer’s only contact with the outside world.
The sudden arrival of Win Seton rocks Mrs. Spencer and Pru’s world. Determined to “butter up the old broad,” Win has a strong interest in detailing Mrs. Spencer’s life, this woman who he is convinced is the missing Duchess of Marlborough. For Win, the fact
that Mrs. Spencer hasn’t admitted she’s the duchess is annoying and strange.
From another hidden tidbit to a plot point withheld, Gable takes us on a wonderful journey as she moves back and forth between Pru and Annie’s voices. Young, scared, wide-eyed, and ethereal Pru endures her new employer
and begins to fall for Win. With Charlie finally “out of the picture,” Pru is supposed to be in mourning, but somehow in this “wreck of a house and in the wreck of a life,” Pru falls in love with this salty, ornery writer “who doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.” Then there’s Mrs. Spencer herself: old and frail, her mind forever careening “into faraway places and long-ago years.” Through Mrs. Spencer’s cobwebbed stories of Marcel Proust and Paris’s grand literary salons, Gable (and Win) paint a picture of a
mysterious, formidable woman.
Writing a story of feminine empowerment, Gable breathes life into Annie, Pru, Mrs. Spencer, and later Laurel’s journey of love,
while Annie’s investigation takes her to Paris on the hunt for her father’s true identity, which Laurel has kept from her daughter for reasons of her own. Gable’s lovely, conversational style is always rich and vibrant and literary, the descriptions of Banbury and Paris a colorful background to the intrepid language of her four resolute, determined heroines.