I was talking about this book in recent podcasts, and was anticipating reading it because I was so curious about the setting in both location (England and Kenya) and the time period (early 1900s) – and because Willig writes lovely espionage mysteries.
I expected this book to be good. It was.
Sometimes my thoughts on a book don't coalesce until days after I've finished it, and such was the case with The Ashford Affair. If you'd asked me right after I finished it what I thought, I'd have been able to give you meaningless replies like, “It was good,” and “I liked it,” and then I'd trail off while a fourteen minute plot summary and random sentences about the characters stampeded the exit to my brain at the same time. This book is a blend of historical fiction, contemporary mystery, romance, and sweeping family saga – and thus this is a difficult plot summary to write. So much happens in this book that it's difficult to summarize without sounding too bland – except that adding more detail spoils the discoveries that happen along the way.
Clementine, who is called Clemmie in the story, is a corporate attorney in a large firm, whose job takes up every spare moment of her life. Her days are told in the number of coffee cups on her desk and the number of binders stacked around, under, and next to her desk. She works hours upon hours, and has more room for work now that her engagement has been broken off.
The pivot in her life occurs when Clemmie attends her grandmother Addie's 99th birthday, and she realizes how much she's been missing. Her grandmother is slowly failing, and in a moment of confusion at the party, calls Clemmie by a name she's never heard before – Bea. When she asks about it, her mother and aunt offer contradictory and cryptic answers, prompting Clemmie to start asking more questions.
Addie's life is told as well, from her childhood onward, and the story jumps back and forth in time as Addie grows up, and Clemmie grows more curious and more questioning of her goals and her life at present as she searches for the answer to what seems at first to be a small family mystery. The skeletons in Clemmie's ancestral closet are twisted, braided things, and the more she discovers, the more fascinating the connection between Clemmie and Addie, and the rest of their family.
Because the ending didn't meet all the expectations of my romance reader brain, no matter how many times I told it not to have these expectations, the questions that remain follow me around and have been keeping me company during laundry folding and dish washing. How come she did that? What happened after that part? I wonder if…
One of the most interesting aspects of the book, one that makes a dividing line of “before” and “after” in the historical storyline is the part where Clemmie goes to Kenya. The attempts of some characters to insert English society and wealth into the oppressive heat and cultural differences of Kenya is both fascinating and a little appalling. The ways in which the characters change in Kenya are revealing as well.
In the end, Clemmie's relationship was more satisfying for me because it had a resolution, though it was hurried in the final pages, and showed up at the end like presto hey it's the end of the book time for Using Words to Talk About Our Feelings.
I feel like I need to caution everyone here who might be considering this book because it's not really a romance. It's a family saga and a mystery, and it does indeed share a lot of similarities, I think, to Downton Abbey, especially the melancholy. When I watched Downton, I felt that there was a sadness that permeated the story. Whatever the overarching storyline might have been that season, it was never hopeful in my estimation. Something was dying, ending, changing, depleting, recovering, or shifting in some way toward the negative. There's a similar sadness or melancholy to this book, in part because the story dovetails between revealing Aunt Addie's painful past as she reaches the end of her life, and telling the present and future for Clemmie, who is unhappy in the present.
The book and the interwoven stories within it reveal a lot about the positive and negative meanings of the word “entitlement.” The wealthy society of pre-WWI Britain had a sense of entitlement that suffered when they lost so much, but Clemmie and her cousin were also entitled to love and care as children that they didn't always receive. They had one another, but as they grew up their understanding of one another – and their feelings about their own happiness in life – also rested on entitlement. Addie wanted security and happiness, and wasn't too fussy about what class or status of society she found herself and that contentment in. Bea grew up assured that because of her looks and her wealth, she was entitled to everything she wanted, and when that didn't magically happen, she had no idea what to do with herself.
My empathy as a reader was challenged by this book, too. Addie is cast early as a saint and a victim, suffering through horrible circumstances and trying to make the best of them. Yet some characters in the present time (which is 1999, so not exactly the present) don't look at Addie so favorably. Addie's cousin, Bea, also challenged my empathy, as she was so miserable and so selfish I wanted to dislike her, but I also understood how she felt, why she acted as she did, and why Addie had such unending loyalty to her.
This is a book that would provide people a lot of discussion about the hows and the whys of the characters. It's rich in detail, in character types, and in setting – England in the early 1900's, New York in 1999, Kenya in the 20s – and the resolution of some of the affairs referred to in the title are sufficiently nebulous they allow for some creative imagination.
One thing that romance readers, I think, are not used to (I mean, I know I am) is nebulous endings. Not every plot thread is sewn up and tied off discreetly. Some stories just end, leaving the reader to wonder, to “circle back over the ending and tease out clues to the story” as @mir_b said on Twitter. Part of reading romance means that there are understood expectations about the ending of the story – there is a lot built into the HEA, really – and because this book is not really a romance, there's more flexibility in the ending. There is no unhappy ending, please be assured, for the main characters, but there are unfinished or unclear endings for some characters.
There are almost two pieces of the story that, were this a romance, I'd expect to see more of. They're both in the ending, so I can't talk about them without spoiling a lot of the revelations in the story. Much is asked of my imagination to envision the ending I want complete with all the details, though it's not a shortcoming of Willig's that I don't have all those details. It's not a romance; I must adjust my expectations accordingly.
I hadn't realized until I finished The Ashford Affair, though, just how much my reading expectations include explicated closure for many, if not all, of the major plot threads. There's no conclusion, epilogue, or coda where everyone is visited one by one so the reader is assured of their end, whether good or bad. I think, given the depth of how much I knew about the ancillary characters, I can predict accurately what happened to them. Bea's mother, for example, I can picture ten or 15 years into the future and am pretty sure I'm correct about how and where she is.
But when a semi-main character's ending is nebulous and open to interpretation, with some facts and details made known but the larger, intricate emotional portrait left hazy, that's like an engraved invitation to my imagination to go ponder for a few hours.
Which is what I've been doing since I finished the book. For me, the most troubling character is the one I'm thinking about the most. That doesn't mean Addie or Clemmie were poorly done. They weren't at all. But I know what happens to them. Not knowing the final details after knowing so many in the beginning is a new exercise for my brain. There's a whole other story that's not explicitly told, so my imagination has been working on that. For hours.
This isn't a romance, but it's rich and superb written, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I finished it. Romance readers looking for a taste of something a little different will discover a fascinating world in this book.