Guest Review: ‘The Ashford Affair’

15701533The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig
St. Martin’s Press, April 9, 2013 (Historical Fiction)

This Friday’s post is courtesy of Koren, who is another librarian and a friend of ours from library school. She’s a history buff, so naturally her book review features a historical fiction novel. The Ashford Affair sounds like an intriguing read that will appeal to Downton Abbey fans, but does it live up to Willig’s Pink Carnation series?

This is a female-focused drama of family- and self-discovery filled with tragedy, betrayals, unrequited and requited love, and an exploration of the complicated relationships between women.

The Ashford Affair opens on a hot, dusty train ride through Kenya in 1926. Addie, a young woman feeling awkward and unfashionable, is on her way to see her cousin Bea whom she hasn’t seen in several years. As a child, Addie is orphaned and is sent to live with her aunt and uncle, the wealthy upper-class Gillecotes, at Ashford Park. Bea, the middle daughter of the Gillecotes, takes a shine to Addie and they become fast friends. As the story unfolds, we see that Addie plays a supporting role to Bea’s glittering socialite star. There has since been conflict in the family and so there has been little contact between its members. Apprehensive about meeting her cousin, Addie feels a mixture of love and resentment at the prospect of seeing her. When she finally arrives at the train station, sweat-stained and dusty, Bea is there to meet her looking fabulous. The presence of Bea’s husband makes Addie uncomfortable, nervous, and very curious – there has been some sort of relationship between Addie and her cousin’s husband but what kind of relationship it was isn’t clear at this point.

The scene jumps to New York in 1999, where the reader meets Clementine Evans, or Clemmie as she’s usually known, a workaholic lawyer at a large firm who’s recently split up with her fiance, on her way to her grandmother Addie’s birthday party. Flustered, dishevelled, and late, Clemmie arrives at Addie’s apartment and has to deal with the disapproval of her mother and her catty remarks about Clemmie’s aunt, Anna. Here she is reunited with Jon, a sort of ex-step-cousin, from one of Anna’s previous relationships, with whom Clemmie has a past (there are continuous ominous references to a past encounter in Rome). At this party, Clemmie overhears a reference to a family secret and so begins to investigate her grandmother’s past while struggling to keep up with her hectic job. Clemmie, like Addie, has a troubled family life – her parents had divorced when she was a child. Despite her position as a lawyer in a New York firm, I felt like Clemmie was irrational at times.

Through the book, we jump back and forth through time between the stories of Addie and Clemmie. Their stories and experiences run parallel, on their journeys to understand themselves and their families. At first, I found the switches between Addie and Clemmie to be clunky and distracting. However, these transitions became smoother closer to the book’s climax. I usually enjoy books that have a multiple story and multiple time format stories, but I had trouble with the way Willig did these jumps. I found that the reader would often be left on a cliffhanger but when the story returned to that time, the action had already happened and the reader is left with the aftermath.

I feel like the story is rushed and Willig has gotten so caught up juggling the multiple story strands that I didn’t have time to connect with any of the characters. This “juggling” affected my feelings towards the characters, especially Addie. I never felt like I really got to know her and that I was always catching up on important developments in her life. Willig’s characters had great potential and I wish that she spent more time exploring the emotions of her characters. How did Addie feel about Bea’s actions? Bea was Addie’s partner in crime and for much of her life, her only friend. There are several significant moments in Addie’s life which we only hear about after the fact.

Since the title is named for the Gillecotes’ house where Bea and Addie grew up, I expected more time to be spent at Ashford, with more exploration of family life at Ashford. After reading the book jacket, I expected much of the story to take place in Kenya. However, again because of the way Willig crafted the book, most of what we hear about Kenya has already happened.

Overall, The Ashford Affair was enjoyable. There were many twists – some expected, some unexpected. This was my not my first Lauren Willig book, but I didn’t realize this was the author of the Pink Carnation series until after I had finished the book. The Ashford Affair is quite different from Willig’s Pink Carnation series and definitely has a more serious tone. Fans of Kate Morton will enjoy this book.

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