London in the Roaring '20s, Paris during the German occupation, and a clifftop villa in 1980s Corsica serve as backdrops for a tragic love affair.
When Kate Darling's mother, June, dies in an airplane accident, the whole world mourns the loss of the former prima ballerina. Not long after, June's adoptive mother, Evie, shows Kate something she had kept secret for 30 years—a letter from June's birth mother and her portrait by renowned artist Thomas Stafford. When Evie dies days later, Kate is unmoored—her career as a photographer is stalled, and she's alone in their old London Victorian. When she contacts the reclusive Stafford about the drawing, he invites her to his home in Corsica, where she's treated to the unwinding of an epic story of love and loss. Thomas Stafford and Alice Eversley met one perfect summer when they were 6 and then again in their 20s; Tom was a student at Oxford and Alice, an aristocrat, one of the Bright Young Things. They fall in love: Alice encourages Tom's art, introducing him to useful people, and Tom sees the authentic Alice—not the shallow socialite but the bold little girl who was going to conquer the world. When she travels to Venice with her cosmopolitan aunt and returns pregnant, she's hidden away by her family and later moves on her own to Paris. This is the story the nostalgic Stafford tells Kate, but an intervening narrative, told from Alice's perspective, has the whole truth. Though the two occasionally connect—in Paris, in Corsica—Tom and Alice can never build a relationship. When star-crossed lovers are kept apart by one member's lack of commitment, it's hard to mourn their missed romance, making for a plot occasionally at odds with the tone. Kate may fare better—while in Corsica, she and Stafford's grandson Oliver begin to fall in love.
Lush descriptions of time and place enhance a compelling love story.