Tonight, just for those few hours, he’d felt he belonged. Never mind that he was a stray among strays, a disparate ragbag of people collected together from the four corners of the earth, through unknown tragedy. He had not been a captain in the army or a hereditary peer of the British realm with a vast estate to inherit. He had been nothing more than a pianist, and his talent had entertained and brought pleasure to others.
He had loved it because he had simply been himself.
(from The Orchid House, page 248)
The Orchid House is set in England and Thailand and tells two tales, one in the present and one during the years just before and just after World War II. In the present, Julia Forrester is mourning the death of her husband and young son, withdrawing from her caring older sister and basically the entire world. Julia is a famous concert pianist, but overwhelming sadness and guilt prevent her from playing. 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.
However, toward the end, the book took a turn that I hadn’t expected and didn’t like. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say that this event raised more questions than it answered and made me want to throw the book across the train. I will admit that by the time I finished the book, I understood why the author felt it was necessary, but it was just too over the top for my tastes. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the book and didn’t let this event ruin it for me.
The Orchid House alternates between present-day and World War II-era England and Thailand. 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. I highly recommend The Orchid House for readers who love historical novels with a little bit of everything — war, romance, secrets, and redemption.
Disclosure: I received The Orchid House from Atria for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.