Another day, another goodreads win
“The Orchid House: A Novel” by Lucinda Riley is a completely engrossing book that’s a ton of fun to read. If you are a fan of shows like Downton Abbey and the like, I would highly recommend this book.
First: I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that this book was not originally intended for an American audience. The characters are *very* British in their mannerisms and speech, that is, more stiff and formal and less emotional than the average American reader may be used to, especially when talking to strangers or, in the historical sections, “betters.” I bring it up because I’ve noticed several other reviewers here on goodreads (an American website) complaining about the characters and their way of speaking. I would ask my fellow reviewer to recall that this is a book mostly about British people living in the UK. It’s not that the characters don’t have feelings, but rather they were brought up in a more rigid social hierarchy (especially in the flashbacks) and thus opinions must be communicated within a set of strict rules for behavior. Elsie, a maid, isn’t going to run up to Olivia, an upper class girl and later Lady Crawford, and be all, “Giiiiiiiiirl! You lookin’ HOT! Now sit down and we get your hair did!! Hang on a sec while I pull up this braiding how-to off youtube. Have you met our super-sexy Lord Harry yet?? You should totes try and hit that tonight, girl! YOLO!!” Yeah, no. It’s just not realistic for the time period. Even in the modern plot-line, Julia is very formal with Lord Kit Crawford at first because she’s following rules of decorum leftover from previous eras – she sounds much more natural when talking to her family, particularly her sister. If this sort of thing is going to bother you, maybe this isn’t the book for you. On to the review proper!
I won “The Orchid House” through goodread’s firstreads giveaway program some time ago, but read the back, classified it as a “pool book” and stashed it away until summer. So a few weeks ago I took it down to the pool expecting a sappy and predictable generational love story a la “The Notebook” — imagine my surprise when, after only the first few pages, I found myself completely engrossed!! No longer was I sitting on a lounge chair in the sun, but bundled up against the chill of a Norfolk evening. And I don’t mean Norfolk, Virginia.
The plot in a nutshell: Julia has fled the sparkling Côte d’Azur and retreated into herself, holing up in an English country village a stone’s throw from the once-great Wharton Park estate. Events lead to a reunion with Kit, a childhood acquaintance who, in addition to being super-hot ;), is also the new Lord Crawford. He gives her a diary dated 1946, Thailand, which he found whilst renovating Julia’s grandparents’ old cottage on the estate. Looking for answers, Julia goes to her grandmother and thus begin the two historical story-lines which follow the lives, loves, and losses of the “Greatest Generation” of Crawfords and how they have affected the lives of our characters today.
It’s written in well crafted, easy and melodic prose that is fun to read and quickly wraps you up in the settings and characters, both past and present. The characters are engaging and sympathetic, though they often make infuriating and self-destructive choices. Again, it’s important to recall that most of this book takes place in another era, when family and social duty were governed by difference rules. The author shows how it’s possible to take control of your life to accept and move past even unfathomable tragedy and come out stronger. What’s worth noting, however, is that not all the characters *do*; not every character gets a happy ending. Even those that end on a positive note come about because the characters *choose* to live for themselves and are thus contented, albeit in a way which they never expected or dreamed of. This novel presents a very interesting way of looking at the world – that coincidence and fate may exist, but overall our lives are governed by our choices. Riley is particularly adept at portraying the depth and emptiness of her characters’ loss in a realistic manner without resorting to melodrama or stereotype. The plot itself, however, does tends a bit more towards the melodrama and contains more plot twists than a Doctor Who episode!! While most of the reveals are set up over the course of the novel, and therefore mostly believable in themselves, the last fourth or so is packed with so many sensationalist revelations that it left me feeling a little numb. Checking your suspension of disbelief at the door is a *must* for the last bit of the book. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the idea that a certain character would never suspect she was adopted despite looking *asian* and having two lily-white parents is beyond me. And was the second adoption reveal really necessary??
Also, you can tell this wasn’t written for an American audience because Riley expects her readers to have at least a little basic French. There are a few Francophone characters in the flashbacks whose speech includes italicized French words or phrases without translation (Julia’s son Gabriel speaks to her in baby-Franglais, the Taiwanese hotel owner throws in the odd “Quelle surprise!”, etc). I think there might have been a few quick exchanges fully in French, but it’s hard for me to remember specifics…I read fluently in French, so I honestly didn’t notice the language switches and had forgotten about them until I sat down to write this review. However, they were pretty basic and their meaning could probably be guessed via context clues (that’s what I did with the sprinkling of Taiwanese words also in the book). Personally, I think that the inclusion of these other languages as an organic part of the narrative was helpful in creating the large scale, international tone I think that Riley was looking for.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone with a healthy suspension of disbelief, a little French, and a love for a good historical family intrigue.