A keeper? I’m afraid not
Not a bad book, exactly – but it should be either longer or shorter. The initial situations are intriguing: in 1913 London, a very little girl is settled in a hiding place on the deck of a passenger liner – but the woman who told her to hide there never comes back for her. And in 1976 Brisbane, Cassandra’s mother drives the two of them to her mother’s house and leaves Cassandra there. For keeps. So we start with what looks like two parallel stories of abandoned little girls. Very promising.
Unfortunately, it almost seems as if Kate Morton really wanted to tell a story about the turn of the twentieth century but didn’t trust her readers to care unless she included characters from the present day, or close to it. She gives us a lot of detail about young (and adult) Eliza’s experiences between 1900 and 1913; she makes us mourn when Eliza’s twin brother dies and fear what might happen to Eliza in the slums of London – and fear the worse things that might happen to her among her wealthy relatives in Cornwall. We enjoy Eliza’s talents for storytelling and evasiveness, and we worry about her sickly rich cousin Rose, and we hate her aunt Adeline. I’d have been perfectly happy to read three or four hundred pages about all these late nineteenth century and early twentieth century people.
On the other hand, Morton could have put more detail into the stories of Cassandra and her grandmother Nell (who probably didn’t start life as Nell; but after a head injury on the ship bound from London to Australia back in 1913, she can’t remember what she used to be called). True, this would have made the book at least six or seven hundred pages long – but it’s already 549 pages. What’s a few hundred more, if it makes the story better?
A sentence or two here and there suggests that Nell spent her married life in the United States, but we never see her there or find out why she lived there. As for Cassandra, there are (I think) just two brief hints that she has some great personal loss – aside from Nell’s recent death – by the time we meet her in 2005, before we find out on page 200 exactly what happened. Now, if Morton told us that Cassandra refused to think about her loss, this delay would work. But on p. 200 we’re told her tragedy (the deaths of her husband and toddler; this isn’t a spoiler, because it’s not really important to the rest of the story) was “never far from her mind”, and I don’t believe it. Not when I’ve spent so much time in her mind by that point in the story without being able to figure out what was wrong other than Nell’s death. Not when she rarely thinks about them again for the next 350 pages.
Basically, Morton uses Nell and Cassandra to sub for the reader and investigate the story of Eliza. If we had spent time hearing their own stories in emotionally involving detail and had a chance to find parallels or contrasts to Eliza’s life, this could have been a wonderful book. If we stayed with Eliza and her friends and enemies, it would be a good book. As it is, it’s a book that keeps yanking us away from each piece of the story as soon as we plunge into it. 😦