03 October 2012

Book (P)Review: The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig

Sadly, The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig wasn't the book for me.  It was just good enough to finish reading at night when I was tired from work but not yet ready to fall asleep, and it was one of those books that I kept expecting was going to get better in the next chapter, but that time never came. Admittedly, I had high hopes when it was described as "Out of Africa meets Downton Abbey", and really, it reminded me of neither. Spoilers abound here, so if you think you  might want to read this book and you care about knowing things ahead of time, don't read on. But if you're only mildly curious about this book because you like either Out of Africa or Downton Abbey, read on because I'll tell you the gist of everything and you don't have to waste time reading it yourself unless you really, really want to.

The story weaves back & forth between Addie in the 1920s in England and Kenya (though precious little of Kenya), who is a cast-off cousin of a wealthy aristocratic family, and Clementine (called Clemmie, which is a name that grosses me out) in 1999 New York City, who is Addie's granddaughter.  Or is she?  The book spends a lot of time going back & forth between these two timelines, I suppose to create tension, but really it's only a mildly frustrating gimmick. Addie is the short, dark, poor cousin to the tall, beautiful, and ethereally blonde  and fabulously wealthy Bea, and thus in the first chapter the author has taken advantage of every available cliche. They are as close as sisters, but Bea is a nasty piece of work from the get-go with few earned moments of sympathy, while Addie is the earnest, do-good child who wants to make a difference in the world.

When Addie falls in love with Frederick, recently returned from WWI, it seems that for once a man notices her instead of Bea, but not for long. Wicked times ensue between Bea and Frederick and the whole family is driven apart because, oops, Bea was using Frederick as revenge against her own cheating shitbag of a husband, but her husband discovers Bea's infidelities and because he is a MAN and this is the 1920s and double standards were A-okay, HE divorces HER amid much scandal.  And gin.  Lots of gin. Her family blames Addie for introducing Bea & Frederick in the first place and both young women are outcast and not spoken of.

So OF COURSE the only thing to do is for Addie to become a businesswoman and swear off Bea forever, whilst pregnant Bea marries Frederick and they move to Kenya to start a coffee plantation because hey, Frederick read a book once about coffee farming and thought, How hard can that be? Also he probably wanted to be able to write a book one day and have the opening line be, "I had a farm in Africa." And five years down the road Addie decides to visit them, because how could THAT go wrong? Bea is learning to fly from a bush pilot who reads strikingly like Robert Redford's character in OoA and having affairs with any young man who flatters her because she is OLD at twenty-eight and Kenya is stealing the bloom of her youth and her husband doesn't so much like her anymore and is pining away secretly for Addie.

Then they all go on safari and Bea disappears, and she may or may not have been eaten by a lion. Two years later, with no body ever found because of the whole eaten by lions thing, Bea is declared dead, Addie and Frederick marry, and Addie becomes mother to Bea's two little girls

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Clementine keeps wondering indignantly, and with more than a little whining, why her step-cousin knows more about her family history than she does. When Jon the knowledgable step-cousin responds to her petulance with I AM INTERESTED IN PEOPLE OTHER THAN MYSELF, PERHAPS YOU SHOULD TRY IT SOME TIME, Clemmie flounces off. Then there's a bizarre little subplot involving Clemmie's travels to London where she meets a step-cousin thrice removed who is the current marquess of something-or-other and it turns out that he is the grandson of Bea's first husband and they exchange private glances at the expense of Clemmie's hard-ass boss who doesn't promote her to partner even after she worked 80 hours/week for him, even on New Year's Day and Easter, for the last several years.

I think there is supposed to be a lot of suspense surrounding the real story of Addie and Bea and how one came to pose as Clemmie's grandmother, but as the reader actually know the entire time where they stand in relation to each other, I can't imagine anyone feeling anything beyond mild interest. Clemmie certainly took the revelation badly, but she's a spoiled workaholic attorney in her thirties who can't see beyond herself and can't figure out that the reason she can't make any personal relationships work is because she's not present for them.

For me, Addie was the more interesting character and I'd much rather have seen more of her than of Clemmie, but it was not to be.

I've now spent more time writing this review than I ever thought I would, but as it felt slightly therapeutic, I guess that's all right. This book will be published in April 2013 by St. Martin's Press and I got an advance reading copy of it from my sales rep, Bob.  Thank goodness it didn't end up in my vacation suitcase!


  1. I appreciate this summary. Now I KIND of feel like I read it, but it only took me like two minutes. Awesome.

    1. That's what I'm handy for: keeping my interwebs friends from wasting their time on mediocre books that look and sound more interesting than they really are.

  2. Aw, that's a shame! I stopped at the warning. I'm curious as to your thoughts but I'll have to wait til the book comes out. The Out of Africa meets Downton intrigues me for sure but I'm more interested in seeing what Willig does outside of her Pink Carnation series.


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