The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig was the best sort of surprise. I have been a fan of Willig’s Pink Carnation books for years. They are fun romance novels, bouncing between Eloise, a modern-day graduate student researching aristocratic espionage during the Napoleonic wars, and a historical heroine, who changes with each book but is always somehow tied to the Pink Carnation. The series started out with a breezy chick-lit style but as it has progressed (the 10th book will be published later this summer) as Willig, a lawyer by training, has incorporated more and more historical detail. I have loved watching her style evolve over the years and so was very excited when I heard she was publishing her first historical novel, The Ashford Affair.
Like the Pink Carnation books – and like so many historical novels these days – The Ashford Affair focuses on two women in two different eras. Switching between New York in 1999 and Kenya in the 1920s, Willig follows young lawyer Clemmie Evans as she tries to sort out her family’s past and learn more about her beloved grandmother, Addie. But Addie’s life was not what Clemmie had been told and she finds herself learning secrets that the entire family knows but never speaks about.
If anything, I enjoyed the “modern” storyline more than the historical one – the complete opposite of how I feel about the Pink Carnation books. The historical storyline certainly has a lot going on, between Addie’s childhood in England, her encounters with the hedonistic lifestyles of the young and wealthy in post-war London, and then her time in Kenya as part of a tense love triangle, but everything moves so quickly that it is difficult to become attached to her. She is fascinating but always at a distance. Clemmie, on the other hand, is wonderfully accessible. She is someone who thought she had her life together but, over the course of the novel, begins to question her choices about her career and her relationships as she unravels the truth about Addie. I particularly loved Clemmie’s relationship with Jon, her ex-step-cousin (and isn’t that just the perfect muddled degree of acquaintance for a late-20th Century love interest?) who is the one to push Clemmie to find out more about her grandmother’s past. They’ve known each other for years but their long-time attraction has been complicated by family interference as well as their own youth and stubbornness; it makes for an interesting dynamic.
I really enjoyed this book and was so impressed by how much Willig has grown as a writer since those early Pink Carnation books. Here, she builds on the techniques and styles she had experimented with in those earlier books to create something entirely absorbing, with just the right blend of humour and history. I am looking forward to the next Pink Carnation book but, even more, I am looking forward to Willig’s next historical novel.