It is a sweltering summer in Ceylon in 1935. In the 300-year-old walled town of Galle, the sun is about to set on the British Empire, though not before a prolonged period of turmoil. In Jefferies' romantic melodrama, Louisa Reeve basks in her happy marriage to Elliot. As Louisa gazes at the blue sky and the shimmering turquoise seas, her life is tilted. The past rushes back, over two years later. She loves the dusty peacefulness of Galle, though the raw sadness and pain of losing her baby Julia never goes away.
Now Louisa must look toward the future. She has invited some of her father's friends to dinner to talk about refurbishing The Print House and turning it into an emporium in the center of the town that will highlight the local gem trade. Louisa longs to confide in someone, but she hadn't found the right time or the right confidante. Fragile Gwen Cooper, Louisa's best friend, is the first person who Louisa's feels she might be able to trust not to gossip, though she's naturally drawn to her sister, Margo. Louisa's mother, Irene, finds it difficult to understand her daughter's love of mixing with locals. Irene believes that the British should be "sticking to their own kind."
Louisa worries about Elliot, his fast driving and dinghy racing, "his taking of life at a ferocious speed." Lately he's been spending most of the time away at Cinnamon Hills, an estate in the countryside. Louisa knows something is bothering Elliot; perhaps it's just the pressure of work. Louisa ponders the future and the possibility of another child. In effort to find answers, she turns to Leo McNairn, the owner of Cinnamon Hills who lives there with his reclusive cousin and his nephew. The place is rundown, but Leo is breathing new life into it. Louisa has attempted to guard her secrets carefully, until there's a knock at the door and Margo comes in. Elliot is still not back from his yachting trip. The awful randomness of events will change Louisa's life forever.
In a life filled with thumps and twists and turns, Louisa must now reckon on spending it without Elliot. A feeling of blank disbelief opens out before her, and Louisa turns to Leo's cinnamon plantation to find the peace that she craves. There's something untouchable about Leo, as if he's a little out of reach. He appears to live a lonely life. Louisa wants to ask him more without seeming to pry too much.
While much of the plot follows the typical romantic tropes, Jeffries' engaging, descriptive prose offers a precise vision of 1930s British prejudices and social hypocrisy. Far beyond the rich cinnamon-scented air and the sweet fragrance of orchids and rhododendrons, Louisa can't deny the seductive pull of virile, gruff Leo. But Elliot's death has marked her. The man she trusted with her life was lying to her, but he had also given structure and meaning to her life.
From the packed streets of Colombo and the sweet scents from the tea and cake stalls that line Galle's pavements to Cinnamon Hill's luminous tea bushes, a riot of pink green purple and blue, Jeffries unfurls a kaleidoscope of ever-changing shapes and colors. Louisa tries to retrace Elliot's last days. Steadfast, she must learn to face the truth: that the love at the heart of her marriage was not the love she had imagined. "How swiftly life could change, how drastically it could all be gone." Elliot's betrayal scars Louisa so deeply, burning her with a sense of shame that somewhere along the line she had "settled for less and must have chosen not to see."
The novel is a vibrant portrayal of a particular time and place. (The story actually reminded me of the recent BBC/PBS series Indian Summers, albeit with much more sanitized subject matter). Though at times rose-tinted, Jeffries is good at exploring the ins and outs of Louisa's compassion, a kindness that defines the quality of her relationships as well as her marriage and her hopes for the future.