Review: The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul

Review: The Collector’s Daughter by Gill PaulThe Collector's Daughter: A Novel of the Discovery of Tutankhamun's Tomb by Gill Paul
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A Paperback Original
Bestselling author Gill Paul returns with a brilliant novel about Lady Evelyn Herbert, the woman who took the very first step into the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, and who lived in the real Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, and the long after-effects of the Curse of Pharaohs. 
Lady Evelyn Herbert was the daughter of the Earl of Carnarvon, brought up in stunning Highclere Castle. Popular and pretty, she seemed destined for a prestigious marriage, but she had other ideas. Instead, she left behind the world of society balls and chaperones to travel to the Egyptian desert, where she hoped to become a lady archaeologist, working alongside her father and Howard Carter in the hunt for an undisturbed tomb.
In November 1922, their dreams came true when they discovered the burial place of Tutankhamun, packed full of gold and unimaginable riches, and she was the first person to crawl inside for three thousand years. She called it the “greatest moment” of her life—but soon afterwards everything changed, with a string of tragedies that left her world a darker, sadder place.
Newspapers claimed it was “the curse of Tutankhamun,” but Howard Carter said no rational person would entertain such nonsense. Yet fifty years later, when an Egyptian academic came asking questions about what really happened in the tomb, it unleashed a new chain of events that seemed to threaten the happiness Eve had finally found.

My Review:

Once upon a time, there was a crocodile on a sandbank. While that particular crocodile doesn’t make an appearance in this book (although there is A crocodile), it’s still the reason I picked this book up. I’m referring to the first Amelia Peabody book by Elizabeth Peters, Crocodile on the Sandbank, published only three years after the more modern parts of The Collector’s Daughter take place. I still miss Amelia, and I still look for books that remind me of her. I hoped that this book, wrapped around famous ( or infamous) events in Egyptology featuring people that Amelia would have known and had firm opinions about – as she always did – would scratch my itch to hear Amelia’s rather forthright voice in my head one more time.

Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Herbert and Howard Carter at the top of the steps leading to the newly discovered tomb of Tutankhamun, November 1922.

The lovely thing about this particular story, however, is that at least the bare bones of it are true. Lady Evelyn Leonora Almina Beauchamp (née Herbert) was the daughter of Lord Carnarvon. THE Lord Carnarvon who sponsored Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Evelyn, along with her father and Howard Carter, was truly one of the first people to see the inside of the famous tomb in modern times. Even if those modern times were nearly a century ago.

Howsomever, the way that the story split its timelines between the 1920s and the 1970s meant that it wasn’t exactly the book that the blurb would lead one to expect. Because that blurb, along with the book’s subtitle, gives every impression that the more significant part of the story revolves around the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. And unfortunately it doesn’t.

Instead, the larger part of the story takes place in the 1970s, just after the latest in a series of strokes that Eve suffered throughout her real life, after a severe automobile accident in 1935. Whether this particular stroke mirrors reality or not, it is true that the threat of another stroke hung over her life very much like the curse of Tutankhamun – even if that curse was entirely a creation of the press looking for sensationalism.

So most of the book takes place in the 1970s, and much of its time, its mystery and its pathos are wrapped around Eve’s months of recovery, her flashbacks of memory during that recovery, her husband’s love for her and his fears about the future as they are both in their 70s, and the attempts by an unscrupulous archaeologist to get a compromised Eve to reveal secrets that she has been keeping for 50 long and tumultuous years.

Escape Rating B+: The issue with this book is that it is a much quieter and gentler book than the reader has been led to expect from the blurb and the subtitle. I was expecting, honestly, a bit of Amelia. A woman perhaps a bit ahead of her time who overcame obstacles and had adventures. Because, let’s face it, being one of the very first people to see the inside of Tutankhamun’s tomb in thousands of years should have been a great adventure. The adventure of a lifetime. I was expecting to read a story about that adventure.

But that’s not what this story is about. Partially that’s because it is wrapped around Eve’s real life, and Eve is, as her Wikipedia entry puts it, “known for (being) present at the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb. She didn’t discover it. She didn’t work on the team that made the discovery. She was not an archeologist – and neither was her father Lord Carnarvon. Eve was present because her father provided the funding for Howard Carter’s expedition, and she was the first in the tomb because she was able to fit through a much smaller hole than either her father or Carter.

Then her father died, the lurid story of the curse was born, and Eve left Egypt for home, never to return, although she and Howard Carter remained friends for the rest of Carter’s life.

This story isn’t really about the discovery. It’s really about the way that the discovery has haunted her life and the way that the secrets she kept hidden loomed in the background. The secrets really existed, as revealed in her uncle’s diary many years after she returned to England. There had always been rumors that she, her father and Howard Carter had made a surreptitious visit to the inside of the tomb before the officials came down from Cairo to certify the find. And that while they were inside the tomb, a few small items made their way into all of their pockets. In a way, this is a story about the way that the thing that Eve stuck in her pocket has hung over her life rather like a bad smell. Still it seems to have been a good life, a comfortable life, and even if it was visited by tragedy, it seems like no more than any other – curses notwithstanding.

But readers expecting something like the 1999 film The Mummy, where Rachel Weisz plays a character named Evelyn Carnahan who is based on Eve Herbert, are going to be a bit  disappointed. As I was in Eve’s lack of resemblance to the redoubtable Amelia Peabody. Or even to amateur detective Jane Wunderly in Murder at the Mena House. But if you’re looking for a quiet, lovely book about a woman who did not transcend her time but lived in the shadow of her one great adventure, there’s plenty of charm and a great deal to enjoy in The Collector’s Daughter.

It just wasn’t quite the book I was looking for.

Review: The Lost Daughter by Gill Paul

Review: The Lost Daughter by Gill PaulThe Lost Daughter by Gill Paul
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 496
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on August 27, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

If you loved I AM ANASTASIA you won't want to miss this novel about her sister, Grand Duchess Maria. What really happened to this lost Romanov daughter? A new novel perfect for anyone curious about Anastasia, Maria, and the other lost Romanov daughters, by the author of THE SECRET WIFE.

1918: Pretty, vivacious Grand Duchess Maria Romanov, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the fallen Tsar Nicholas II, lives with her family in suffocating isolation, a far cry from their once-glittering royal household. Her days are a combination of endless boredom and paralyzing fear; her only respite are clandestine flirtations with a few of the guards imprisoning the family—never realizing her innocent actions could mean the difference between life and death

1973: When Val Doyle hears her father’s end-of-life confession, “I didn’t want to kill her,” she’s stunned. So, she begins a search for the truth—about his words and her past. The clues she discovers are baffling—a jewel-encrusted box that won’t open and a camera with its film intact. What she finds out pulls Val into one of the world’s greatest mysteries—what truly happened to the Grand Duchess Maria?

My Review:

“Into each life some rain must fall,” or so goes the old song. But into the lives of the characters in this story, not just Maria and Val, but nearly every one, seems to be inundated with that rain – as if they were each beset by their own particular – and misery-making – hurricane.

As this story begins, there are, not one, but two lost daughters, more than half a century apart, and seemingly no link between them.

These two women shouldn’t have much to do with each other. Maria is one of the lost Romanov princesses, presumably killed at Yekaterinburg along with her brother, her sisters, and her parents, the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, Nicholas and Alexandra. Or so history tells us.

But in this story, Maria is one of those lost daughters. She survives, through a series of nearly miraculous events, and by the hands of two men, one who was obsessed with her, and one who loved her. Both were her guards, and both were supposed to participate in her execution.

Instead, one misdirects the other guards, and one spirits her away, to a life of, if absolutely not luxury, then a life of, well, life, with all of its joys and sorrows, hidden in plain sight in the Soviet Union. While she mourns her family and always wonders if her sister Tatiana escaped (that story is in The Secret Wife) she marries her guard, raises a family, and pretends to have never been a Grand Duchess, a life that fades into her past more thoroughly each passing year.

Val, on the other hand, is an abused wife in Australia in the 1970s when her estranged father dies in a nursing home, suffering from dementia, crying out at the last that “I didn’t want to kill her,” leaving Val with no idea who it was that he didn’t want to kill, and what it meant.

In searching for the truth about her father, Val manages to finally break away from her abusive husband. At first, all she finds is a bigger mystery, but the pieces begin to come together as she puts her life back together. That search leads Val back into the past, to her father’s early life as a guard at Yekaterinburg. And forward, into her own career as a historian, specializing in the Romanovs.

And eventually leads her back to Maria. To the tie that binds them both.

Escape Rating B: It seems that The Lost Daughter is a loose followup to one of the author’s previous works, The Secret Wife. Which I have not read – and didn’t miss in the reading of The Lost Daughter. There have been plenty of books speculating, or fantasizing about the escape of one or more of the Romanov princesses over the past century, so the concept wasn’t exactly hard to swallow, even without the previous book.

Although, come to think of it, that one of them escaped feels more plausible than that two of them did – the later discovered forensic evidence notwithstanding.

However, and somewhat ironically into the bargain, it wasn’t Maria’s miraculous escape that bothered me half as much as Val’s abusive husband. There was something about that part of the story that nearly turned me off from the whole book. It feels like too many stories take the easy out of giving their female protagonists more to overcome by placing them in abusive situations that add to the angst but don’t move the story forward.

Val has plenty of problems to work on without having her part of the story start with her husband beating her. That when she finally does manage to leave him he turns into a paper tiger and slinks away made that part of her story feel like a cheat. Particularly since Val has plenty of stuff to work through with her mother’s disappearance and her father’s death – along with the revelations that follow. The abusive husband read like a caricature and felt like “piling on.”

The meat of the story is Maria’s life in the Soviet Union. The beginning of that is more than a bit rocky, as it takes Maria what seems like a long time to grow up and accept that things are never going back to the way they used to be. Not that she ever puts on airs and graces, but that she seems to continue believing that rescue and acknowledgement are just around the corner for a lot longer than seems logical.

And her husband has the patience of a saint. Not that she doesn’t truly love him, and definitely vice versa, but he seems just a bit too good to be true. Their love story, in spite of its origins, makes a lovely contrast to Val’s arsehole of an eventual ex.

But it is mostly Maria’s long and frequently traumatic life that the story focuses on. Her story is the one with all the secrets as well as the really serious trials and tribulations. (I find myself wondering if Val’s abuse was intended to make her story more equal to Maria’s – but it just doesn’t come close.)

Life in the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin, was often brutal and always dangerous. It seems as if everyone informed on everyone else and no one could be trusted, not even one’s own children. However privileged her beginnings, it is impossible not to feel for Maria at every twist and turn of life, the Communist regime, and the impact on her family.

(If this is a part of the story that speaks to you, I can recommend another book that covers the same period (without the Romanovs) that I found even more compelling, On the Sickle’s Edge by Neville Frankel. But I digress.)

In the end, it’s Maria’s story that carried me through the book. Val felt more like the vessel for that story coming to light than a big part of the story itself. At the same time, when the link between them is finally exposed, it’s a revelation that changes everything. And it’s a wow.

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