An American student at the University of Oxford in 1919 falls in love with a dynamic women’s rights activist in this debut novel.
Amelia Cole, called Lia by her friends, is the daughter of immigrant restaurateurs in Brooklyn. Young and somewhat unsure of herself, she boards a ship for England and becomes one of the first women to study at Oxford. She stays with a couple called the Watsons in the quiet, upscale enclave of Spindly Oaks, where Lia is concerned that Mr. Watson may have a drinking problem. On her way to class, Lia runs into an effervescent student named Scarlett Daniels. Lia thinks she is like a movie star: beautiful, posh, and concerned about women’s rights at Oxford. A group has formed on campus that is fighting for women to be able to matriculate along with the men. Scarlett urges Lia to join the band, thinking (correctly) that administrators will listen to an outside American voice. Entranced by the group’s secret home, a cabin called Wonderland, Lia finds herself joining the cause and falling in love with her new friend. Scarlett is similarly inclined, and the budding romance evolves into a passionate affair, complete with a glamorous Christmas trip to London. But Scarlett abruptly ends the relationship, fearing the world won’t accept a lesbian couple. A distraught Lia leaves Oxford early and enrolls at New York University. As the years roll by, Scarlett becomes a well-known actress, and Lia turns into a pioneering woman in journalism. Still, Lia has never truly given up on Scarlett. As the action moves to the 1940s, Lia follows the actress to Hong Kong in one final bid to secure her love. Wong’s novel succeeds in creating congenial characters with an undying commitment to women’s liberation in education, careers, and relationships, particularly those bonds that are stigmatized. But with only vague, passing references to Lia’s career and obvious details about the various time periods, the story works best as a romance. The on-again, off-again dynamics of Lia and Scarlett’s relationship are convincingly described, and the added pressures of a same-sex bond in a hostile time period resonate very well. The prose is spare though somewhat plain (“Divorce was a big deal”). The years fly by quickly, but the emotion of the book flows toward a moving conclusion.
An engaging romantic tale that also calls for equality.