In January 1936, Alice Carew trudges miserably through a frozen world behind her governess, Miss Polly Lovelock. The unsettling feeling in her tummy is back. Alice thinks of all the days that yawn ahead until her Mother comes home. Ensconced in her ancestral home of Blackwood, Alice hopes to catch a glimpse of the slumbering ghosts of her mother's childhood and those long-ago summers: boating, parties, picnics and swimming in the Blackwood Park's picaresque lake. Blackwood house's empty corridors echo with the whispers of lost voices.
Reflecting on the days before the Great War and the childhood shadows of her mother, beautiful Selina Lennox, as well as Aunt Miranda and Uncle Howard, Alice writes letters with the anticipation of a reply. She makes it her business to look out for things to tell while her governess stands behind her, soft and cautious. Selina's treasure hunt will offer a clue. Her mother was once the feckless one, frivolous and flighty, buoyed along by her best friend, Flick. Through Flick, she meets Theo Osborne, who introduces her to the "Bright Young People" and the parties at Grosvenor Square.
The bulk of the novel is about Alice ensconced at Blackwood Hall as she anxiously waits for her mother's return from India, but the story is also about free-spirited Selina. She been aware of a growing restlessness--a sort of hunger, a sense of floating above herself. She falls in love with Lawrence Weston, who has responsibility for this society girl who appears on the streets of Bloomsbury at almost three o'clock in the morning. Lawrence has a sudden vision of a vast estate somewhere--brothers, perhaps, and a childhood of climbing trees and rising horses. He knows about Selina, of course: "you'd have to be an illiterate hermit living on a remote island not to have heard of Selina Lennox, baronet's daughter." Selina's mother, Lady Lennox, is of the opinion that only Rupert Carew is suitable marriage material for her daughter. Selina's attitude is salt in the wound for Rupert, a distinguished scholar at Eton and Cambridge.
Selina meets Lawrence a dozen times in the most unlikely places: on the pavement in the Strand, in the stalls, below their box at the theatre, dancing in the Blue Lantern nightclub. Back at Blackwood Hall, Alice spends her time gazing out of the windows, constantly reciting Selina's clues in her head. Her excitement mounts as the pieces slot together. Alice has a reputation for being Selina's dark, gypsy-eyed daughter; like Selina, she seems shameless and defiant. Lady Lennox had once wondered whether Selina might grow up to be one of those "sexless women." . It's unfortunate that her granddaughter's presence, her very existence, means that Selina's affair may never be forgotten.
Grey strikes a rich balance between Lawrence and Selina's romance and the intimate domestic details of Alice as she devours her mother's letters from Mandalay. The author charts Selina's difficult path as she seeks an independent life for herself. She explains that it was their differences that attracted them to each other, "the fascinating magnetic pull of opposites." Flick Fanshaw, a colorful woman at the best of times, soon becomes a go-between of sorts, passing judgment on the constrained lives of Selina and her family almost as if she had stage-managed the sequence of events. Grey's heroines are made all the more poignant by the intricacy of their emotional connections, self-absorbed mother and the daughter aching for her return, years apart, both damaged by the requirements of their class. Other characters stand out: Lawrence's new love, flamboyant Rupert, whose smile hovers over Selina like the Cheshire Cat; and Lady Lennox, who has buried her emotions in the deepest recesses of her heart and hardened her face against the world, her way of coping, "of getting on."
In this London of tea rooms and omnibuses, gabled cottages, grand Georgian homes and cobbled alleys, the bloody war might be over, but Selina and Lawrence's love is a constant reminder of brokenness and loss in this evocative, beautifully rendered novel.