In the summer of 1932, Alice Eveleigh daydreams about the man she’s in love with. Spring softens and deepens into a languid summer
as a vague sense of expectation edges closer. Alice may have a job in Finsbury Park and may be seduced by James Elton’s easy smile, but what starts out as sharing pots of tea and the hope that James will get a divorce so that he can marry her soon develops into an “awful and incomprehensible fix.” Unable and unwilling to get an abortion, Alice confides her predicament to her tight-lipped, judgmental, chilly mother, only to be packed off to golden-stoned Fiercombe Manor, deep in the heart of Gloucestershire, where she will be placed into the care of family friend Edith Jelphs, at least until the baby is born.
poses as a grieving widow rather than “a fallen woman.” She’s considered a newlywed who has only just found out she was expecting when her husband “got himself killed,” knocked down by a motorcar on his way to work. Alice arrives in Fiercombe playing the role of sudden widow, but from a distance; she feels like a fraud as she begins to tell kindly Mrs. Jelphs the lies her mother has crafted: her illness and her “dead husband.” Picked up by Ruck, Fiercombe’s irascible handyman, Alice descends deeper into this Cotswold valley, far from London’s sprawling suburbs. Trepidation swirls around inside Alice as the valley begins to entomb and conceal her shame from the rest of the world.
At first there’s nothing to occupy Alice’s mind except the memories of James and the enormous mistake she made,
along with the dread of being exiled to place where she knows no one. Soon, however, she’s learning about Fiercombe’s past and how Mrs. Jelphs was part of “a dying breed.”
As local historian Mr. Morton shows Alice photos of a picnic at the Old Manor in 1893 and a gloomy photo of Stanton House, along with beautiful Elizabeth Stanton’s face, always so tantalizingly blurred, the clues to Elizabeth’s past and the intrigue behind the destruction of Stanton House leave Alice's
curiosity more than a little piqued. The threads of Fiercombe’s own past seem to be binding Alice tighter and tighter.
The emotional machinations are complicated, a brewing storm of unhappiness of a woman who unexpectedly keeps miscarrying, and of a husband who aches for a male heir.
Embattled Alice goes far beyond Elizabeth Stanton’s tragic secrets. There’s a connection between them, “a twisted rope of silken threads” that stretches back though the years. The way Mrs. Jelphs looks, she recognizes something in Alice, something she
once knew in Elizabeth, a recognition perhaps representative of Fiercombe’s tarnished history and of Sir Edward Stanton’s chilly indifference and animosity towards his suffering wife.
Riordan creates a world of heavy air, where the weight of past grief bears down on Alice and Elizabeth as they bob and weave through their trying circumstances. Her deceptive pastoral locale adds to the sense of consistent threat: the crumbling glasshouse that once belonged to Stanton House, a tainted valley cloaked in the darkness of night.
Riordan paints a tenuous life that can be transformed at the snap of a finger. Both Alice and Elizabeth’s only place of solace is the Summer House--literally the only light at the edge of the valley where Elizabeth escapes to write in her diary, hoping to assuage her guilt at surviving yet another miscarriage.
Elizabeth tries hard to create a fantasy existence with Isobel, her young daughter. But Elizabeth’s life is a lonely, conflicted reality, full of men and doctors who dictate her life, and Edward provides a constant reminder of her innate inability to produce a boy. Elizabeth constantly fears that she has inherited a predisposition towards madness after giving birth. Alice, meanwhile, fares
a little bit better, her pregnancy coming to symbolize something new and good, her life in London becoming little more than “an inconsequential blur.” Luckily Alice has a new potential suitor in the form of Fiercombe’s current owner, the young, dashing Thomas Stanton.
With his ruffled hair and his sad, dreamy eyes, Thomas tells Alice about his own tragic past and how Fiercombe had once become something of a sanctuary and a shrine to a mistress who had long gone from the valley.
Easily flipping the vantage point from Alice’s 1930s perspective to Elizabeth in the 1890s,
Riordan carefully calibrates her parallel story technique. The reader accepts these dual points of view, happily immersing into both times.
Riordan also maintains the intimacy of her descriptions, which allows a fully realized experience even when she sometimes strains the novel's overall credibility by resorting to melodrama and happenstance. In the end, however, memory becomes a tableaux, disconnected from the present as distant Elizabeth’s voice chimes like thunder, a voice that
reaching back from the past to claim Alice.
The past has a fiery grip on Fiercombe Manor and Stanton House, a grip that has never felt more tenacious. Like “invisible ropes winding slowly around her ankles until they were ready to pull her under,” Alice’s dark thoughts reverberate as she feels Elizabeth’s secrets burrowing ever deeper inside of her. Ironically both Alice and Elizabeth are at the same juncture in life--mired in restrictive social circumstances and entrapped by those supposedly closest to them, unable to direct their own destinies. Building to a poignant conclusion, Elizabeth becomes the unwitting catalyst for shocking revelations and for dark family secrets, for poisonous relationships and the many facets of marital dysfunction.
Whether producing an heir or building a grand house can bring happiness or perhaps something else, Alice discovers that in the summer of 1932, she is the surprising beneficiary of Elizabeth’s tragedy
as she discovers the true value of family, falling in love, and being a mother.