Riley’s talent for writing rich dialog does much to enhance a well-used and beloved formula,
yielding a haunting and lyrical story that I found impossible to put down. Sisters Alicia and Julia attend a sale of the contents of the crumbling
but grand Norfolk estate of Wharton Park. Comprising a thousand acres of fertile land and for over three hundred years the center of the Crawford family, the house itself is in a dreadful state of disrepair and about to be sold to pay off its numerous debts.
Now owned by
handsome, unruly-haired Kit Crawford, Wharton Park was a large part of Alicia and Julia’s childhood. While Alicia thinks it would be good to pick up some kind of keepsake or memento for their
father, who is off to the Galapagos Islands on a research assignment, Julia--a world-famous concert pianist--focuses instead on her vivid childhood memories: the visits to her Grandfather Bill in his hothouse and the overpowering smell of the exotic flowers. Once famous in the orchid world for growing hybrids, Bill was a “salt of the earth type”
and popular in the local Norfolk horticultural community.
Latching onto fragile shreds of optimism after a devastating tragedy has literally transformed her life, Julia is sorry to discover that the hothouses are completely empty. Julia and Alicia’s mother, Jasmine,
was born and raised in the cottage next the Estate; Elsie, their grandmother, left to live in the small seaside village of Southwold. When Julia decides to pay Elsie a visit, the eccentric old woman’s stories create a sense of atmosphere and jumpstart Julia’s exploration of the lives of previous inhabitants at Wharton Park, uncovering as well a cauldron of troubled family secrets.
Adding to the mix is Kit, who turns unexpectedly up on Julia’s doorstep with a diary he found under the floorboards of their old cottage. Presumably written by Grandfather Bill, the diary is
an account of being a prisoner of war in Changi gaol in Singapore and reveals some unsettling facts about the origins of Julia’s past. Julia learns that in 1939, on the eve of the outbreak of war, young Olivia was married to Sir Harry Crawford,
himself plagued by a sense of not fitting in and haunted by the notion that he was born into the wrong kind of life.
Plunging us into war-time England, Riley describes naive, city-bred Olivia, who acclimates to other aspects of country existence but is personally affronted by her husband’s lack of intimacy and can’t quite believe it when he refuses to consummate their wedding night. Hardly a natural soldier, Harry is sent to fight in Singapore and later finds himself recovering from dengue fever in Bangkok.
In this humid, exotic landscape, the suggestion of sensual pleasure finally breaks through when Harry meets Lidia, a native girl and the first woman to give him any form of comfort. Harry nurtures hope that his love for Lidia can finally reframe his reality and free him from the cusp of responsibility, position and circumstance.
A dying summer speeds on towards September, and Wharton Park’s fields are gradually sloughed of their bounty. While the plot is fueled by Harry and Olivia’s bitter and broken backstory, Julia steps through the looking glass and learns to shoulder the ultimate burdens of losing her husband and son--and the guilt, and the fear for daring to be happy. Kit’s unbinding love for Julia brings Riley’s modern-day heroine full-circle in a contemporary world unencumbered by convention and class. Only by determining her own self-worth and the role age-old secrets played in the estate-dwelling lives of Harry and Olivia can Julia restore the shattered links between past and present.
In a narrative as smooth as the fine whiskey that the characters drink, Riley delicately mixes all of her components: family secrets, sexuality, and exotic locales--even wartime drama--for a romantic story told on a fairytale turf that reflects the complexities of lives lived inside and outside the hallowed walls of Wharton Park.