In this novel, Morton jumps back and forth between various timelines, though the majority is set in 1900, 1975 and 2005 with chapters sent in intermittent years at various points. On her 21st birthday, Nell's father reveals to her that she is not actually his daughter, and that he found her over 17 years ago on the dock, unclaimed after a ship from England had embarked and unloaded. When no one came back to claim her or the suitcase she came with, he and his wife decided to keep her, the child they had always wanted. Since the girl does not know her name, Hugh and Lil christen her Nell. In 2005, Nell dies, and Cassandra, her granddaughter, finally discovers this piece of her grandmother's history, something that she has kept hidden for a long time. She also realizes that her grandmother has kept a few other secrets, all related to her initial background, including a trip to England and the purchase of a house in Cornwall in 1975.
One of the few things in Nell's suitcase was a book of fairy tales written by Eliza Makepace, who is the focus of the chapters set in 1900-1913. She is the Authoress that Nell remembers from the boat to Australia though she doesn't know what happened to her, and this book and some papers in the suitcase are the starting point of Nell's search. While giving the reader the backstory on what happened through Eliza, Morton also flashes forward to Nell's journey to England to discover herself, and Cassandra's later trip. Nell actually discovers who she was rather quickly though this doesn't get her any closer to solving the mystery of why she ended up alone in Australia. Similarly, Cassandra has Nell's notebooks to refer to and get caught up, but she too is intrigued and stumped by what exactly happened. Eliza was definitely the most interesting of the characters - her mother ran away from her family estate to marry someone below her station, but when Eliza ends up as an orphan, her family finds her and takes her to her ancestral home. Her aunt treats her as a unwanted charity case, but Eliza and her cousin Rose quickly form a relationship.
Anyone familiar with Kate Morton will see themes that have been in all of her novels: the close sister (or cousin) bond, mother-daughter relationships, and the family member that sacrifices everything for a loved relative. Cassandra also has her own demons that are haunting her, and this new obsession serves as both a distraction and a way to reengage with life again. I thought Morton struck a great tone with the book, and though I knew that something bad was going to happen, I couldn't help but root for Eliza and her desire for happiness and love. The relationship between her and Rose was very well portrayed, even if one of the characters was incredibly self-absorbed.
The one thing that I've noticed about Morton's novels, at least this one and The Distant Hours is that for the most part, the present characters figure out exactly what happened and solve the mystery of the past but generally, they are missing just one detail or two that would add an extra sense of poignancy or put the character into an even better light/make the story even more tragic. While I'm glad we as the reader get that extra background, I also want the characters to have it, to really understand what happened and not just mostly understand, if that makes any sense. While I like Morton's writing style, she can also be a bit of a downer - in general, I'm much more wrapped up in her past characters than the present day ones, so even if the novels end slightly hopeful for the present day characters, the tragedy of the past has already occurred, and it is impossible to hope that things got better for those characters because their lives are already written. Of course, the reader can guess many of the twists ahead of time though Morton does throw a few red herrings in there - I was certainly expecting something slightly different to occur with one of the characters. Of the Morton novels I've read, I liked this one best so I definitely recommend this to anyone that likes gothic fiction or Morton's novels (though I do understand some of the complaints about Nell and how finding out she was "adopted" caused her to change her personality and withdraw from those close to her).