The Ashford Affair is a departure for Lauren Willig in some ways but not in others. While leaving Napoleonic spies behind, she incorporates the same smart dialogue and multiple-time format in her newest book, which follows the lives of two women over 70 years apart who are linked through family ties and secrets. I sped through it in just under two days, regretting the intervening time when I had to go to work and sleep.
The heroines are Addie Gillecote, who arrives at Ashford Park, a grand English country house, in 1906 as an orphaned poor relation; and her granddaughter, Clementine Evans, a workaholic attorney in New York City in 1999. Clemmie's high-pressure legal career has resulted in a broken engagement and has made her late for her Granny Addie's 99th birthday party, to her mother's dismay.
Within the book's first chapter, a tantalizing genealogical problem presents itself. Clemmie also gets her first hint about a long-held family mystery when her grandmother, her mind drifting with old age or overmedication, calls her by an unfamiliar name. She becomes curious about the reason why and receives help in her quest from her aunt's stepson, Jon, a university professor with whom she shares witty quips (and memories of a weekend in Rome years ago that they've agreed not to talk about).
From the outset, the plot darts quickly among several eras and locales, forcing readers to trust the author to reveal each piece of her tale in its appropriate time. Fortunately the novel's structure is sound and easy to grasp.
Addie's changing relationship with her sophisticated cousin Bea sits at the center of the earlier storyline. Bea befriends Addie as a child and shelters her from the snippy remarks of her mother, Lady Ashford, who had opened her house to Addie only reluctantly. The two girls grow up together in a glittering prewar era of debutante balls and instruction in the social graces. But by 1926, when Addie arrives in Nairobi to stay with Bea and her husband Frederick on their coffee plantation, their closeness has become awkward... and it has everything to do with the as-yet-unknown past she shared with Frederick.
All of this takes place within the first few chapters, and I won't say more about what occurs. The background behind these situations is revealed bit by bit, and the telling held my attention throughout. The ending is fabulous, also, going one step above what I expected.
Historical fiction readers will likely take greater interest in Addie's story than Clemmie's, and not only because the earlier time period is intrinsically fascinating. These characters are moving through events that shaped the modern world, and the author illustrates how World War I shifted priorities and ruined lives, even those of the individuals fortunate enough to survive. The action sweeps from upscale Jazz-Age London soirees to the red dust and intense heat of Kenya; it succeeds at providing a wide-angle look at the times while tracing one woman's personal journey.
In addition, for me Addie was the more likeable and admirable character, doing her best with the lot she'd been given. Clemmie, while obviously a brilliant career woman, needs more than just a nudge to have her eyes opened to what truly matters in life, and with her frenetic schedule, it's no wonder she was unable to sustain a romantic relationship.
The Ashford Affair is billed as "bringing an Out of Africa feel to a Downton Abbey cast of characters," which is valid to some extent. I would have liked to have seen more of Addie's later life in Kenya, in addition to the nostalgic photographs which Clemmie comes across decades later, although maybe it's fitting that some aspects of the past remain elusive. As a saga, I found it very satisfying overall, and I'd certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the WWI and post-Edwardian eras.
Thanks to the publisher for providing an ARC as a FirstReads giveaway on Goodreads (this review was first published there in January). The Ashford Affair was published by St. Martin's Press on April 9th ($24.99, hb, 352pp).