The Sapphire Widow
Growing up, the novels of M.M. Kaye and Mary Stewart were heavy favorites of mine. Their books were all about the British Colonial period and took place in exotic locales, extolling the mannerisms and lifestyle of an era long gone by. In The Sapphire Widow, Dinah Jeffries recaptures the elegant prose of those tales, along with the chilling, eerie atmosphere of mystery many of them had. Like the grand dames of suspense from yesteryear, she plunks us into an opulent, lush world with a sparkling surface and a sinister underbelly.
It’s 1935, and in Ceylon, Louisa Reeve is preparing the house for a Christmas party when her husband Elliot comes in, brimming with fun and vitality as he usually is. They talk about how fortunate they are to have everything they do: Louisa’s family’s wealth has given them a comfortable life, they are young and in love and beautiful and for that shining moment all seems well with their world.
The next day, as Louisa shows her friend Gwen about the small walled city of Galle which is her home, she admits that actually, all is not well with her world. She longs for a child and mourns the miscarriages and still births which have plagued her marriage. Her friend offers comfort and soothing words, and Louisa is reminded that while she might not have children, she has been very blessed by living in this tropical, multi-cultural paradise. Having grown up here, she has friends everywhere in the community, people who love and accept her regardless of their differences in religion, culture and skin color.
Which is a good thing, since Elliot has needed to be away a great deal of late. He has been spending large chunks of time at a cinnamon plantation he invested in, claiming that it requires meticulous attention. Louisa spends her days managing business concerns at home, working out the details of an emporium Elliot has recently been dreaming of creating and planning their annual anniversary party. But when the hours pass, and Elliot is a no show at the event, she becomes concerned. When the police arrive to tell her he has died and how it happened, it leaves her with crushing sorrow and complete confusion. Elliot had planned to spend the day sailing with a friend, but he was in a borrowed car speeding down a road far from where he had said he would be when he slammed into a tree. What was he doing there and why had he lied to her?
This is a character driven tale and the author does an excellent job of introducing the players in our story. That can be both a good and bad thing. From very early in the tale we, learn that Elliot is something of an entitled, privileged little punk. That’s good, since it prevents us from becoming too attached to him. We learn he leans heavily on Louisa’s money and is endlessly making plans as to how to spend it. He is careless of his wife, leaving her alone for great chunks of time and is concerned primarily with his own entertainment. When the big reveals about his secrets come a few chapters into the book, there is no real element of surprise. The author has seeded her text with subtle yet clear clues that make the discovery more a confirmation of our suspicions than a revelation of something new.
The disadvantage to the author’s character driven narrative comes in the form of Louisa. She is an enabler. Whenever Elliot needs money, or a problem straightened out, she immediately steps up to help. Beyond that, her only traits seem to be an obsession with having a child and stubbornness, which often manifests as a need to prove her father wrong. He is against the emporium, there are tons of reasons for Louisa not to go through with it, but she determines she needs a project and doggedly pursues it. He was against her marrying Elliot, but she had been intractable in her love. When Leo, a handsome cinnamon plantation owner, and his young cousin Connor come into Louisa’s life, her father expresses concerns about them as well. By now it hardly needs saying that she determinedly moves forward with those relationships. They were yet another chance for her to enable and were like catnip to her saintly, martyred soul. The good here is that the author does an excellent job with the continuity and construction of Louisa’s character. She ‘s completely predictable because the personality established for her in the text never varies. The downside is that I struggled a bit with Louisa’s willingness to completely inconvenience and sacrifice herself for the men in her life. I would have preferred a bit more independence and an ability to set clear barriers on what could be asked of her.
As a result of Louisa’s facilitative nature, the romance here is rather blasé. Leo and Louisa encounter each other through Elliot, are attracted to each other but don’t move forward with their relationship till after his death. At that point it becomes less about their interest in each other and more about Louisa helping Leo with several family issues. We learn a lot of superficial things about Leo – where he worked previously, what he would like to accomplish in the future – but I never felt as though I really got to know his internal motivations. He seemed primarily to be a foil for Louisa’s do-gooding.
Those are essentially my only quibbles. I thoroughly enjoyed the fabulous scenery, the looks we had at life in Ceylon and the fantastic job the author has done in recreating the atmosphere of the period. The prose here is very reminiscent of the novels I grew up with and so I found myself enjoying the simple process of reading as well.
Another positive was time spent with characters from The Tea Planter’s Wife, a previous novel by this writer. While this is not exactly a sequel to that book, it does give us updates on the lives of that novel’s characters. It was great to revisit with Gwen, her husband, kids and extended family.
The mesmerizing, vivid descriptions of a captivating time and place make this novel. I would recommend The Sapphire Widow to fans of the author and those who are location junkies simply because of the gorgeous geographical and historical descriptions woven beautifully throughout the text. New readers would perhaps be better served by perusing The Tea Planter’s Wife first. The story and characterizations are stronger there and again, while this is not a sequel, knowing some of the characters in that novel will make the reading of this one a richer experience.