Review: The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig

The Ashford Affair by Lauren WilligFormat read: hardcover borrowed from the Library
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, paperback, audiobook
Genre: Historical fiction, Women’s fiction
Length: 367 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Date Released: April 9, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

As a lawyer in a large Manhattan firm, just shy of making partner, Clementine Evans has finally achieved almost everything she’s been working towards—but now she’s not sure it’s enough. Her long hours have led to a broken engagement and, suddenly single at thirty-four, she feels her messy life crumbling around her. But when the family gathers for her grandmother Addie’s ninety-ninth birthday, a relative lets slip hints about a long-buried family secret, leading Clemmie on a journey into the past that could change everything. . . .

Growing up at Ashford Park in the early twentieth century, Addie has never quite belonged. When her parents passed away, she was taken into the grand English house by her aristocratic aunt and uncle, and raised side-by-side with her beautiful and outgoing cousin, Bea. Though they are as different as night and day, Addie and Bea are closer than sisters, through relationships and challenges, and a war that changes the face of Europe irrevocably. But what happens when something finally comes along that can’t be shared? When the love of sisterhood is tested by a bond that’s even stronger?

From the inner circles of British society to the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the red-dirt hills of Kenya, the never-told secrets of a woman and a family unfurl.

My Review:

Two women in one family, across two generations, are both manipulated by people who love them “for their own good”. Because the other person believes that they “know best”. And their lives operate in parallel courses, although Clemmie at the end of the 20th century does not know the ways that her beloved Grandma Addie manipulated her life…or the secrets that she took with her to the grave.

At the beginning of the century, we see six-year-old Addie Gillecotte being taken under the wing of her eight-year-old cousin Bea in Ashford Park, after Addie’s parents’ sudden death in a auto accident. Bea is the spoiled and willful daughter of the Earl of Ashford, and Addie spends her girlhood never quite measuring up to her cousin’s shine or her baleful aunt’s expectations. Addie lives in the shadow cast by Bea’s glow, while Bea counts on having Addie to love her best.

But the First World War intervenes. Bea was taught to be an ornament. Addie was expected to be useful. Addie’s training makes her competent, where Bea discovers that she is ill-prepared for the world after the war, especially a world where so many of the men came back shell-shocked or part of the famous “Lost Generation.” One reason the 1920’s roared may have been because that was the only sound some of them could still hear.

Bea has always gotten everything she ever wanted. She was the daughter of the house, and it was expected. Addie finally found one thing that she wanted for herself. Bea stole that from her to fill up the empty spaces in her own life, and deceived herself into believing that what she did was best for Addie.

Then Bea ran away to Kenya to escape the scandal. Five years later, she invited Addie to visit her, and to gloat. But that’s not what happened.

Clemmie knows none of the history of her family. She doesn’t even know that her Grandma Addie lived in Ashford Park. Or about Bea. All she knows is that her own life is a shambles. She’s sacrificed seven years of her life to become a partner at a prestigious law firm, because her grandmother and her mother both emphasized how important it was for her to be independent.

The price of that independence has been to lose touch with everyone around her. She misses her last chances to say goodbye to the woman who was the main support in her life. Then the secrets unravel and she discovers that nothing was as she thought it was.
Who was her Grandma Addie? Really? And does it matter after all?

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn WaughEscape Rating A-: The comparisons are not merely inevitable, but most are lampshaded during the course of the book; Brideshead Revisited, Out of Africa, and the multigenerational family sagas of Barbara Taylor Bradford. But also the works of Belva Plain who wrote stories very similar to Bradford with the exception that many of her heroines were Jewish, and last, but definitely not least, Downton Abbey.

The two points of view, Addie’s and Clemmie’s, are easy to track between the two time periods. Addie and Clemmie have very distinct voices within the story. One thing that fascinated me, I wish we saw Addie’s perspective as she manipulated Clemmie’s life in pretty much the same way that her life had been manipulated, but that happens by hearsay, the story is told from Jonathan’s perspective and not Addie’s. But the irony was delicious.

Still, this is a double second-chance-at-love story, which you do figure out. What doesn’t come easy is the method. I was expecting things to be more sinister on the one hand, and more complicated on the other. The actual story worked much better.

The 1920s have more life in the story than the 1999-2000 period that acts as the frame. The modern story is about the discovery of the family mystery, which was cool. The mystery also serves as Clemmie’s search for a real identity of her own, instead of the drudgery of pursuing a partnership that she couldn’t get except by pretending to be an asshat or a fool, and she was neither.

By finding Grandma Addie’s history, Clemmie discovered her authentic self. And true love.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Jane Austen Made Me Do It

Jane Austen made me do it. Made me do what? Mostly made me have a lot of fun reading this collection of short stories inspired by her works!

Jane Austen Made Me Do It, the book, is a collection of short stories inspired by the life and works of Jane Austen. Of course. The collection was edited by Laurel Ann Nattress, and features stories by a host of writers from Stephanie Barron to Lauren Willig.

I read most of the Jane Austen oeuvre during my interminably long commuting days, which means I listened to it on audio. I enjoyed them immensely, but I’m not obsessive. I say this because the stories in JAMMDI fall into two categories, the ones that require detailed knowledge of particular Austen works, and the ones that use Austen’s life and works as jumping-off points.

The stories that used Austen as inspiration were ones I particularly enjoyed. You might even say I found a couple of them, well, inspiring.

In “The Ghostwriter,” by Elizabeth Aston, Jane’s ghost comes to the aid of a 21st century author who has spent much too much time admiring Mr. Darcy and not nearly enough energy on her own love life or on her sagging book sales. Jane’s apparition leads Sara to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, an unpublished manuscript by one of Jane’s contemporaries that will be a shot in the arm for her dying career. While Sara copy-edits the found manuscript, Jane fixes up her love-life for her.

“The Chase,” by Carrie Bebris, is about how Jane’s brother Francis received his commission as Post-Captain, based on Francis own logbooks. This story was as vivid a recreation of a naval battle as any of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series.

My favorite was the story by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway titled “What Would Austen Do?” A high school student whose mother is a Jane Austen aficionado has saddled him with the name James Austen. Mom may even have married Dad just so she could snag the Austen last name! The story starts with poor James getting hauled into the school principal’s office and being accused of becoming a drug user. Why? Because he’s been exhibiting unusual behavior. What unusual behavior? He’s become polite and mannerly to his teachers. He wears khakis and button-down shirts to school. And he has strange paperwork in his locker. With numbers on it, and weird words like “arming” and “inside hand” and “ECD”.

If you want to find out what “ECD” stands for, you have to read the story. It’s worth it.

Escape Rating B: Because this is an anthology, it’s a mixed bag. There were a couple of stories I absolutely adored. “What Would Austen Do?” being at the top of the list. The ones that required really deep knowledge of Jane Austen’s works were not as much fun for me. Collections like this are classic instances of the principle “your mileage may vary”.

The stories that used Jane Austen as a springboard were the best ones. The attempts to out-do or re-do her work fell a little flat. The stories that took flight from her, most of those were terrific.