Considering how much luck I had with books at the beginning of the year, I really feel like I've been striking out lately. I haven't read any books that I'd rate as a 1, but I've definitely had a lot more 2s in the last month or two than before. I was actually looking forward to reading this one, expecting something along the lines of Kate Morton, and I guess technically there are some family secrets but it's just so boring. Even when I'm getting irritated with Morton's characters, I'm still riveted with the narrative. I just wanted to throw this one across the room when it wasn't putting me to sleep.
It started off decent enough, and part of it is just that I expect these types of novels to start off slowly before they dig into the past. Julia, the main character, is a pianist, and she has shut herself off from the world for the last eight months following the death of her husband and her two year old son. Despite her lack of interest in most things, her sister is able to convince her to attend an auction at Wharton Park, where her grandfather was once responsible for the hothouses and orchids. Julia's mom died when she was young so she spent a lot of time with her grandparents at Wharton Park after this loss. In the modern day, the estate has become too expensive to maintain, so Kit, the heir to the estate, must sell it off though he plans to keep the small house Julia's grandparents called home. While doing repairs on the house, he discovers an old journal, and returns it to Julia. Now in most Gothic fiction, Julia would become interested in the journal, read it and be inspired to look into some family history. Julia, however, is still too caught up in her grief to do even that, though she eventually takes a trip to see her grandmother and give her the journal, assuming it was her grandfather's (that's right, she didn't even flip through it enough to realize who the author of the journal was). Elsbeth, her grandmother, corrects her, and tells her it was actually Harry's journal, the heir to Wharton Park during World War II.
Her grandmother then tells her the story of Olivia, a young socialite raised in India, that comes to England shortly before World War II begins. I actually liked Olivia. She was smart, independent and organized. Harry seems to get along with her, and his mother also is quite taken with her. Olivia falls in love with Harry, and he proposes when he realizes that Olivia is only visiting his mother because of her interest in him. Despite his mother's warning only to marry for love, he decides to marry Olivia so she can take care of the estate. As a result, I felt absolutely no pity for Harry when he referred to his marriage as an arranged marriage later in the book because his mother didn't want him to go through with it unless he really loved Olivia, and Olivia genuinely cared for him. Though their marriage is off to a rough start when Olivia starts noticing Harry's lack of romantic interest in her, they overcome these issues, and settle into a seemingly happy relationship before Harry leaves for the war.
From here, the narrative returns to Julia, and her developing relationship with Kit as she learns to live with her loss. Kit is of course the perfect man, caring, gentle, and attentive but considering that most of the other men in this novel are scumbags, I guess it needed to balance out somehow. Eventually, Elsbeth visits Wharton Park to share the rest of the story with Julia, which is about the time I wanted to start punching characters and throw the book out the window.
After surviving a Japanese prison camp, Harry ends up in Bangkok at the conclusion of the war where a friend of the family assists him. As he recuperates, he interacts with the local population, and I'm not sure how much of the descriptions are due to Riley relying on stereotypes of Asians in general or if she was actually just being historically accurate in portraying how British men in 1945 would have thought of Asian women. Either way, it pissed me off because I think it was more of the former. The descriptions of one Asian woman and the constant focus on her tininess was just too much. It seemed like the usual exoticizing and fetishizing that is done in regards to Asian women, and I feel like we should be past that. I also couldn't help but roll my eyes when a character said something along the lines of "I'm Buddhist, I live day to day. I take what happiness I can get today and don't worry about tomorrow." Oh my god. Once again, this person wasn't a character, she was a fucking walking stereotype and a manic pixie dream girl without the manic part ... the serene pixie dream girl? Is that a thing?
I would have preferred more of a mystery for Julia to explore. Instead she gets the story hand-delivered by her grandmother, and she barely even seems that interested. Some of the fun in the Morton books are the clues that are still left behind after decades, and even if there is a character that knows the story, they only reveal it because of the protagonist's dogged pursuit of the past and inability to let ghosts lie. Also it helps when the romantic lead is actually charming and interesting and not an asshole wallowing in self-pity who lies and takes advantage of others' trust - although I don't think we were supposed to see it that negatively. Then again, while there are romantic entanglements in Morton, I guess they are never entirely the point - there is also the intense and important relationships between two or more women, be they sisters, cousins or friends.
There were also some statements about adoption in the novel that I found insulting but I would have to spoil things to get further into that part. However, I liked the fact that Harry stayed at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok during his recovery time. I was in Bangkok last summer, and though there was no way I could have afforded to stay at that hotel, I went there for lunch one afternoon and the hotel was indeed gorgeous (the restaurant I ate at, one of several in the hotel, had a veranda/deck by the river and the food was delicious). In other words, considering that the only redeeming part of the novel related to a personal experience for me, I would say this novel is not worth the time or the effort. It's not sweet, it's not romantic, and most importantly, it's not interesting.