The story first begins in 1927, as Natalie Beecham has been called to attend her grandmother Mary on her deathbed, and Mary has some family history to impart to her granddaughter before it’s too late. Flashback to 1859 at Castlemere, the home of the Beecham family who have a centuries long history in the spice trade as Beecham heir George finds a very ill Mary abandoned on their doorstep. Once she’s recovered, George is somewhat flummoxed to find that Mary is the result of an affair he had with a former governess (she’d disappeared and he was told she had died in childbirth). With no sign of her mother, George and his Aunt Nell take red-headed, bright and oh-so full of life Mary under their wing (much to the chagrin of his wife and domineering mother) and he eventually adopts her and raises her alongside his legitimate daughter Hester.
Several years later, their cousin Alex from the Singapore side of the family comes to England to attend school and for young Mary it is love and devotion at first sight, although the older Alex just sees her as a charming minx to be petted and played with. Alex and Mary eventually meet again when her father brings both his daughters to visit him and his wife in Singapore, where Mary must accept the fact that Alex loves another and she must move on (or does she?). On their return to England, Mary’s life takes plentiful twists and turns, but you know what? That’s all I’m going to tell you.
I enjoyed this a lot, especially the bits where we got to see Mary using her noggin and thinking (how refreshing), as well as seeing a woman in Victorian England actually getting a say in and running a business instead of just staying at home and breeding babies. This is a novel that’s hard to pigeon-hole, since the characters aren’t involved in real historical events I can’t quite call it historical fiction, but despite Mary and Alex’s relationship (can’t tell you much without spoiling), I wouldn’t classify it as a romance either (if you’re expecting sex you will be sorely disappointed). There really isn’t a whole lot of action, the story is more character/relationship driven, and despite the promises on the jacket Mary spends more time at home with family than she does in the family’s spice warehouse. That said, I love the way the author set her scenes, especially the jungles and rainforests of Malaysia (I’ll pass on the snakes, thankyouverymuch). While I’m not normally fond of an alternating POV format, it worked well with this story, especially at the end that wraps up a lot of loose ends without having epilogue stamped on the last chapter’s forehead. A wee bit soap-opera-ish and not quite on scale of a saga, it still was a highly entertaining read and I plan on hunting down more of this author’s books in the near future. 4/5 stars.