by Lauren Willig
Clementine Evans, a workaholic thirty-something dedicated to her career in law, arrives late to her grandmother's ninety-ninth birthday. When she arrives and greets her grandmother Addie, the old woman – slightly dazed from medication – addresses her as Bea. When Clementine mentions the name to her aunt, the older woman insists that Clementine meet with her privately to discuss a long hidden family secret. The lawyer agrees, and dutifully visits her aunt the next day. She is in no way prepared for what her aunt reveals: her grandmother grew up with the children of the Earl of Ashford, surrounded by wealth and privilege. As Clementine delves deeper into her grandmother's past, and long-cherished beliefs are proven false, she feels lost and unable to trust her family. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative, Addie's youthful adventures with her cousin Bea, the glamorous belle of every ball, unfold against the backdrop of World War I and the Roaring Twenties, from the finest houses in London to the Serengeti of Africa.
I'm a fan of Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series, so I was looking forward to reading a novel with a new location and different cast of characters. The Ashford Affair is similar in format to the Pink Carnation books. Willig's novels usually tell two stories at once, switching between the narratives of a modern-day researcher (Clementine, in this case) and the historical woman who is the object of that research. Healthy doses of romance spice up the lives of both women as they hurry breathlessly from one project to the next.
The historical narrative is quite breezy. The emphasis on class status and ritzy, sumptuous lifestyle of the Earl of Ashford's family reminded me of Downton Abbey, so fans of the TV series will enjoy Addie's story as underdog to her beautiful and clever cousin. I certainly did. Addie's not just a forlorn orphan blindly devoted to the golden goddess Bea, thank goodness. As she grows older, Addie shuns the fast-paced, party-hard world of Bea and the Lost Generation, subscribing to an idealism that inspires her to volunteer as a nurse during the war years and eventually break free from her strictly stratified upbringing. I like that Addie never comes across as hopelessly naïve or saintly, just a realistic and practical woman doing the best she can in a rapidly changing world. By contrast, her cousin Bea is the life of every party and the ideal beauty of the day. Bea may be popular, but she never quite finds something to anchor herself to the world, so she drifts restlessly. The two young women play off of each other nicely.
Clementine's story, however, was not nearly as compelling. Although her initial shock was understandable, after a while it seemed like she was overreacting to every revelation about her family's history. Her modern-day problems are familiar territory to young women everywhere. I really sympathized with her struggles to balance her career with her duties to her family and her frustrating love life.
Although at times the story is downright predictable, I found the novel addictive and hard to put down. I always have that reaction to Willig. The historical arc is definitely stronger than the contemporary one, but at the final page I was satisfied with a story well-told.
4 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Fashionista Piranha is on a break until August 14th...
2011: Bumped by Megan McCafferty
2010: Jeane Westin, author of His Last Letter
2009: Book Trailer: Sacred Hearts
2008: Contest: Neil Gaiman Extravaganza!