Desert Isle Keeper
The Ashford Affair
Full of historical detail and a big, sweeping romance, The Ashford Affair makes for a thrilling read. As in her beloved Pink Carnation series, Willig presents readers with a story within a story. However, in this case, the modern day (or at least kind of modern – their story is set in 1999) lovers’ quest for the past takes them through some thorny family secrets and discovery. What they – and we – think we know about our families may not be the whole story.
At 34, Clementine (Clemmie) Evans has worked for years to make partner at her New York law firm, and it’s a quest that has cost her a social life, a fiancé, and most of the things her peers would consider normal in life. There is one relationship that she holds dear, though: Her love for her Granny Addie, the grandmother whom she admires and adores above almost anyone else. Some of her earliest memories center on the love her grandparents had for one another, so when she learns at her grandmother’s 99th birthday party that her family may not have been what it seemed, she can’t let that mystery go.
From there, we get a story that jumps back and forth between Clementine’s life in New York and Addie’s life. We see Addie coming, if not entirely welcomed, to live in the home of her aristocratic aunt and uncle in early 20th century England and we get to follow her on into 1920s Kenya. As Clemmie learns more about the life her grandmother lived, she finds herself joining forces with Jonathan Schwartz, a historian and a man from Clemmie’s past with whom she might have some unfinished business of her own.
If you like smart dialogue, you’ll get plenty of it here. The exchanges between Addie and Frederick, and Clemmie and Jon, as well as with some of the other major characters, made the book jump to life. We see Addie growing into herself as she changes from a lost, unwanted orphan to a confident, somewhat no-nonsense young woman, we see her peers struggling with the changes in society wrought by WWI, and we see Clemmie adjusting as she learns her family’s real past rather than the one she thought they had.
Speaking of which, readers who like their heroes and heroines to display near-perfection in their actions probably won’t go for Clemmie, Jon, Frederick, or Addie. None of them are dreadful people, but the couples both in the historical story and the modern-day one definitely have their flaws, and all will have some growing up to do over the course of the story. Clemmie starts off as the consummate workaholic and while that might strike many of us as a bad idea, it’s also a flaw many people have. The rocky road she takes toward getting her life back will feel painfully believable. Likewise, Frederick and Addie have their worlds turned upside down by WWI, and as with many in the so-called Lost Generation, they (especially Frederick) flounder and fight with some dark inner demons. I like my characters to feel like real people and these multidimensional, occasionally unlikeable leads felt compellingly real to me. As a result, though the story has a happy, hopeful ending overall, when Addie and her loved ones go into some bleak places at times, my heart just broke for them.
In terms of the love story, Willig takes on typical romance plotting – and twists it in ways that would make any reader think. For instance, Addie and Frederick get their adorable meet cute as Addie’s pet mouse goes running through a ball only to be captured by Frederick. In a more conventional story, Addie and Frederick would proceed to fall in love inside of a week, live happily ever after and perhaps appear with beaming offspring in an epilogue.
Life in Willig’s imagination does not follow formula. Addie and Frederick’s love story still occupies center stage in the novel, but it’s far more sweeping in time and place than the average, and their march to HEA will take years rather than hours. Somehow that makes their ultimate happy ending feel even sweeter. The pain and messiness of life enters their world, but it doesn’t defeat their love. Not the most conventional path in the modern romance market, but I found the story of their lives – and the life of their granddaughter – unforgettably romantic nevertheless. The Ashford Affair is shelved as general fiction, but I found it a great big romantic epic and I loved reading it.