In 1920, when disinherited English nobleman Nigel Barnstable relocates to the desert village with his heiress wife, Elizabeth, residents are bemused by the sophisticated power couple, with their multiple servants and habit of dressing for dinner. Nigel’s greedy, amoral nature manifests itself with his plan to build a profitable orchard of date palms by any means necessary, including diverting water away from the Indians’ land.
Other characterizations are more nuanced. Elizabeth, who learns to assert herself while trying to escape her marriage, finds a strong ally in Cody McNeal, a cowboy haunted by his past. Luisa Padilla, a Cahuilla pul (shaman), searches urgently for a successor in a world entering the modern age.
Themes of women’s agency and wilderness preservation permeate the story, as do trends in Hollywood filmmaking and the effects of Prohibition. Recommend Wood’s latest to readers of Leila Meacham’s lively sagas of the changing West.
Barbara Wood's Land of the Afternoon Sun was published by Turner Publishing in July (hb, 520pp, $23.95). This review first appeared in Booklist's June 1st issue.
Other novels by Barbara Wood which I've reviewed here include Woman of a Thousand Secrets, set in ancient Mesoamerica; Rainbows on the Moon, set in Hawaii in the 19th century; and The Divining, which takes place in the 1st century Roman world.