Multigenerational tale, from an author of popular Regency/historicals, takes a family from estates in England and Kenya to a Manhattan law firm.
Clemmie hopes to make partner after years as vassal to a petty tyrant in an Ivy League sweatshop. Her personal life is in shambles: Her engagement is off, and she’s still smarting from a disappointing Roman holiday with her stepcousin Jon, with whom she’s had a love-hate relationship since childhood. Now, though, her maternal ancestors are commanding more of Clemmie’s angst. Her once indomitable grandmother Addie, 99, is failing fast. Addie’s story intertwines with her granddaughter’s. After a 1906 accident claims the lives of her parents, young Addie’s uncle, an earl, takes her to live at his stately home, Ashford, ruled by his imperious countess, Vera. Almost immediately, Addie is welcomed as a sister and confidante by her impetuous cousin Bea. Back in 1999, Clemmie suspects that her mother is prevaricating about Addie’s past. As the story of Bea and Addie evolves, so does the enigma. After the girls make their post–World War I debuts, Bea marries a marquess (to Vera’s relief), and Addie, the poor relation, accompanies Bea to her opulent London pied-à-terre. However, as Addie occupies herself with intellectual self-improvement, Bea’s social status is threatened by the marquess’ philandering. To avenge herself, she steals Addie’s beau, Frederick. Everything explodes when the marquess learns of Bea’s pregnancy by Frederick. The action shifts to Kenya, where the characters re-enact an edgier version of Out of Africa. While on an ill-advised safari, Bea disappears. Since she is presumed dead, and husband Frederick, after a rather cursory investigation, is presumed innocent, Addie and Frederick are free to marry and become the progenitors Clemmie always thought she had. The panoramic canvas Willig chooses to cover is a bit overambitious—the law firm minutia, although entertaining, is essentially a digression—but she makes up for the unwieldiness with sharp, scintillating dialogue and expert scene-craft.
Willig’s crossover into mainstream fiction heralds riches to come.