It’s a new month and that means it’s time for another book review. This month, I decided to review the historical fiction novel entitled The Orchid House. The Orchid House is a story spanning from the 1930s to the present day and from the Wharton Park estate in England to Bangkok Thailand. This sweeping novel tells the tale of a concert pianist and the aristocratic Crawford family, whose shocking secrets are revealed, leading to devastating consequences. I love the fact that there’s no shortage of tragedy in Riley’s saga as the narrative weaves between the present and the past and features drug addiction, imprisonment, sudden death and unhappy love as well as flavors of Madame Butterfly. Additionally, it tells a story that is arrestingly modern but that echoes with the lushness of a typical period piece.
The Orchid House follows Julia Forrester, world-renowned pianist, and her sudden love affair with Kit Crawford, the new lord of Wharton Park. In the beginning, we see Julia in the grip of full depression: she barely eats, she never leaves her cottage, and she has stopped playing the piano. She owns a lovely hillside house in the south of France but refuses to return there. As the story unfolds we learn that the loss of her husband, also a pianist, and her son in a horrific car accident, details of which are revealed progressively up to the ending has left Julia adrift in the world. That she was in the middle of a recital when they died only amplifies her sense of guilt. Eventually, she crawls out of her shell long enough to attend an estate sale at Wharton Park, where her grandfather worked in the hothouse tending and cross-breeding orchids and where Julia spent much of her time as a child and felt at home.
She meets up with Kit Crawford, the new lord of the manor, whom she hasn’t seen since she was a young girl. Kit is in the process of selling Wharton Park and discovers a diary in the cottage that once belonged to Julia’s grandparents. They assume the diary was written by her grandfather when he was a POW in Singapore during World War II. Rather than read it, Julia brings it to her grandmother, Elsie, who believes it is finally time to reveal the secrets of Wharton Park.
Elsie’s revelations transport readers back in time to when Wharton Park was in its prime. She tells the story of the estate’s former heir, Harry, and his bride, Olivia, to whom Elsie was a personal maid. Olivia blossomed at Wharton Park, but the estate was a noose around Harry’s neck. Harry didn’t want to go to war and didn’t want the burden of one day becoming Lord Crawford, but as with most people in his position, duty had to come before dreams.
In The Orchid House, Lucinda Riley paints a portrait of people in pain, hurt by betrayals, crippled by loss, and stifled by lives they did not choose. Despite their flaws, I found that I could empathize with all of them, even when I hated their decisions or who they would become. Riley made them seem so real, so utterly human, that I was drawn to them and didn’t want to let them go. I think she did a great job merging the past and the present, even though the connections were quite predictable, and it’s one of the few books that I’ve encountered in which I was fascinated by both the historical and present-day stories.
Not only does Riley do a great job with her characters, but she also has a talent for setting the scene. I could almost feel the bitterly cold English winters as well as the oppressive heat of Bangkok, and I could almost see and smell the vibrant flowers. I especially liked how real the story felt, how some of the characters would heal and grow and how others were not destined to have a happy ending. The writing was beautiful, the story flowed perfectly from present to past, and I never once felt that the book dragged. Ultimately, this is an intricate story of love, heartache and hope, as well as an intriguing mystery. Peopled with fascinating characters and giving a captivating and well-detailed look at the past, this is a story that once started, is hard to put down until it’s finished.