by Lauren Willig
Genres: Historical Fiction
New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig "spins a web of lust, power and loss" (Kate Alcott) that is by turns epic and intimate, transporting and page-turning . 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. . . . What follows is a potent story that spans generations and continents, bringing an Out of Africa feel to a Downton Abbey cast of unforgettable characters. From the inner circles of WWI-era 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.
It has been quite some time since I have read a book that spans generations uncovering family secrets. The Ashford Affair touted by critics to be reminiscent of “Out of Africa with the feel of a Downtown Abbey cast” was highly accurate and despite wanting more time in Kenya I was pleased. While at times it was morose, I quickly became caught up in the different characters from past to present. Willig beautifully transported me from present-day Manhattan to war-torn Britain and the open plains of Kenya, Africa. I slowly slipped within the pages and felt at home with the characters. It is the story of love, loss, adventure, passion, and hope.
The tale slips from past to present and begins with Addie Gillecote who in 1906 is orphaned and taken in as a poor relation at Ashford Park by her uncle and his wife. It is here in the nursery that she meets the charismatic and adventurous Bea. Bea is two years older and the two quickly declare themselves sisters. We then flash-forward to Addie’s ninety-ninth birthday and meet her granddaughter Clementine Evans, an aspiring lawyer who has committed the past seven years to making partner at her law firm. She has recently broken off an engagement. Her Aunt’s stepson Jon is there, he is recently divorced and has returned to the city. We sense a prior relationship between them, and I found this thread interesting. The first few chapters present us with some tension between Clementine’s mother and sister hinting towards a family secret. As we travel back and forth between past and present the mystery and family secrets are revealed as we fall in love and understand the characters.
All of the characters are beautifully fleshed out, raw and at times do unlikable things but the author brings their emotions forth giving us wonderful insight into their reactions, feelings, and sacrifices. I felt so many emotions for Addie and found her to be strong, and her love for Bea despite everything was endearing. The tale truly focuses on the relationship between Addie and her cousin Bea and the rest of the characters are impacted by their relationship. Bea was charismatic, cold, calculating, insecure, sweet, infuriating, selfish, spoiled and dang it I hated liked her. Addie had a tough life as the poor relation, and Bea protected her. She was passionate and looked at the world with a poet’s optimism, While Bea was fair and beautiful, Addie was dark and awkward and their personalities were completely opposite. When Bea married, Addie went to live with her, until scandal forced Bea to move to Kenya. They are separated for five years until Bea writes and asks Addie to visit. It is her that Addie’s life will change forever. Clementine is disenchanted with life as she questions her career and all that she has sacrificed. She has feelings for Jon that were never addressed and discovers her family has secrets. There are love stories woven throughout the tale and we learn of Bea’s, Addie’s and Clementine’s. The characters and their decisions evoked strong emotion from me as I immersed myself in the different threads.
The tale is both a modern day story and a historical fiction as we travel from Manhattan, England, and Kenya. The years span from 1906 to present day. Willig beautifully captures the feel of Britain during World War One and the effects it had on society. We felt the emotions of both the youth and the old as the world transformed before their eyes. Then she whisks us away to Kenya, Africa and I fell in the love with the coffee fields, red clay, and oppressive heat. While the tale is character driven, she also vividly paints the landscape giving us a panoramic view of the story as it unfolds. We alternate from past to present effortlessly and my only complaint was being ripped from a particular moment to return to the present. My favorite part was the past, but I also enjoyed seeing Clementine’s growth as a character through her discoveries. I enjoyed how genuine the characters felt and that the author was able to make me love, hate and understand them. The tale ends on a high note and I was saddened to leave these characters.
I highly recommend the Ashford Affair to fans of character-driven historical fiction. Willig created characters and a setting that was memorable and I look forward to exploring more of her work.
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