First published: 2014
This was such a sad book! The premise is how a woman could spoil a family’s happiness forever. The novel starts in 1974 and we are introduced to Esme, an elderly woman, who is returning to a house called Rosindell to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday and learn the truth about her sister Camilla. Then we are taken back to the past and when the Great War was still going on.
Devlin Reddaway is on leave and goes to have tea with Camilla Langdon, who is a voluntary nurse. Devlin and Camilla know each other through her brother Tom, as both Tom and Devlin went to the same school. Devlin is in love with her, and on those days he feels that she loves him too, so when he is to join the conflict again, he asks her to marry him and she agrees.
Devlin sees some terrible things during the war. The thought of returning to Camilla buoys him up and his intention to turn Rosindell, his home, into the ideal place for his bride. Camilla hasn’t written to him but he knows that she is not good at writing. When he is wounded, he is sent to a convalescence home in England. His father has died during the war, so now he is the only heir of Rosindell. When he sees Rosindell for the first time in years, he is dismayed to find it in such a decayed state, but he promises himself that he will get it back to its past splendour. Then he goes to find Camilla, and this time he gets a terrible disappointment. Camilla is engaged to Victor de Grey, and she tells him that she would never marry him because she can’t see herself locked in that terrible house of his.
Devlin is angry. Camilla’s sister, Esme, has been in love with him ever since she was thirteen. Now she is nineteen, but Devlin sees her as a child. This is Camilla’s engagement party, and to make her jealous, he dances with Esme and tells her that maybe she can go to Rosindell sometime and play his mother’s piano. Esme is so excited about Devlin’s attention that a couple of weeks later when her parents and Camilla are away, she decides to go to Rosindell on her own. That means she has to take the ferry, and then she realises that it is a long way to walk. It is raining when she finally reaches the house, and there is no one there, and when she pushes the door, it opens and she lets herself in. Devlin finds her asleep on her sofa, and he is angry with her and himself because he realises that what he had meant as polite chatter, the girl has taken at face value. He also knows that she loves him. The storm rages outside, so Esme has to stay in the house overnight, and Devlin takes her home the following day.
Esme gets a severe scolding, and some days later Devlin hears through the grapevine that the girl’s reputation is in tatters now. So he comes up with an idea after talking to his former nanny, who tells her to find himself a wife. So he goes to talk to Esme’s father, and even though he doesn’t love Esme, he asks for his hand. In exchange for the marriage, he wants to work with him in his shipyard. When he talks to Esme, he tells her that he needs a woman like her who is perseverant and hard-working. I love Esme in these first moments, so naive, full of love and honesty. They marry, and at first Esme feels like a fish out of water, but she soon gets settled. Esme gets pregnant and has a baby girl, Zoe.
Devlin and Esme throw a party when the new house is finally built. One of their guests is Camilla, and in the living room she has no misgivings to say that she and Devlin were engaged once because he was in love with her. Esme is shocked and disappointed. I think it is at this point when Esme loses her innocence and changes. From that moment on she is wary around Devlin. During that party, she also discovers that Camilla is sleeping with a man who is not her husband.
Some years later things are going well, and Esme and Devlin start having their annual summer dance. Then one day Tom tells her that Camilla has left her husband and is free. That night Devlin is late as he claims that he had to talk to some clients. Esme is sick with jealousy, and now that Camilla is a free woman, she can’t bear the thought of going through this anxiety every day. So she decides to leave Devlin and goes home to her parents. When Camilla learns about Esme’s flit, she rushes to Rosindell, and stupid Devlin lets her seduce him. They make love in the stables, but when Camilla acts all aloof and cold about what has happened, Devlin realises what a fool he has been and how he has let Esme escape when she is twice the woman Camilla is. So he rides to Esme’s parents intending to tell Esme what has happened and to confess that he loves her. Esme has decided that she has been silly and decides to return to him. The problem is that Devlin never tells her about Camilla.
Esme has her son, Matthew, the following year, and when Devlin hears that Camilla has had a daughter, he is afraid that the baby might be his, so she calls Camilla, who reassures him that he is not the girl’s father. Life is good for the Reddaways as they enjoy their love for each other and their children. Esme’s relationship with her children is quite different. Zoe is difficult but Matthew is so lovable, and she spoils him. Then when the crisis of 1929 hits England, Devlin has to make some men redundant. During the summer ball one of these men come to see him, begging for his job back, but Devlin knows he can’t make concessions. Then the man out of spite tells Esme that he saw Devlin and Camilla together that day years ago.
That is the end of their marriage. I was angry with Esme because it was just once… just one mistake, but I can understand that she felt hurt and humiliated. Devlin stayed in Rosindell while Esme went to Oxford with the children. When Matthew turns eighteen, there are rumours there will be a war, and his intention is to join the RAF. Esme is all against it, and Devlin tries to talk him out of it, but the boy is adamant. Like every summer, he and Zoe spend those months in Rosindell, and during his birthday party he meets his cousin Melissa, and they start seeing each other in secret and fall in love. When Devlin learns about it, he knows that he has to put a stop to that because Esme won’t have her son entangled with Camilla’s daughter. So he talks to Camilla, and she tells him that their children can’t fall in love as they are actually brother and sister, and years ago she had lied to him. So Devlin has to tell Matthew, and from this point on Matthew’s life goes off the rails. His relationship with his parents is not the same as he hardly talks to them, blaming them for his situation. In the end, he joins the RAF and starts having a life of debauchery and womanising.
During the war Esme remarries, and her new husband turns out to be a miser and a liar. So once again she abandons another man. At the end of her relationship with Hugo, she goes to Devlin and they sleep together. Devlin begs her to go back to him, but she refuses as she doesn’t love him as she used to. So Devlin does everything to forget her. At the end of the war he meets a woman, Molly, who proves to be as pernicious as Camilla was. The woman proves to be a con-woman who only wanted the house, but thankfully, Zoe manages to find out the truth, and Devlin breaks the engagement. When Charles Langdon, Esme’s father and Devlin’s employer, dies, all the family gather. Matthew, who is not in a good condition, sees Bony on the ferry, he doesn’t think much about it. Yet, when he realises that something strange is going on, he gets in time to save his father from getting burnt from the flames as the house burns down.
Devlin gets burning marks on his face, and Rosindell is in a pretty bad shape. After what happened, Esme didn’t leave Devlin’s side until he recovered, and even though they are not together any longer, she comes to see him regularly because she knows he is the man of his life. As a consequence of the event with Bonny, Matthew felt responsible and left for India and has been heard of since. Esme fears he might be dead. As for Zoe, she got married but her husband died of an aneurysm, and was left alone with her son, Stephen. Apart from her parents, she gets help from Ben, who was her archaeologist friend who lived in the same boarding house as her.
Then we learn that Matthew is not dead. He went to San Francisco, and for a while he was lost to the world, and when he had to have surgery for his appendix, things changed for him. He got a job with a constructor, and some time later he got his own company. Then he met his wife Susan, a Chinese American woman, and they now are expecting their first child. When Susan hints that he should tell his parents, he first refuses. Then when he calls his mother’s old number and a woman tells him about a lady dying, he is very sad. So Susan suggests he write to his sister. So Zoe receives her brother’s letter with glee, and can’t wait to tell her parents, who are logically overjoyed.
Not long afterwards poor Devlin dies, and Esme is there when he takes his last breath. She confesses to Zoe that he has never loved another man, but her father. This part was so sad, and it is a pity that selfish Camilla managed to ruin the happiness for Esme and Devlin. I can’t say that Devlin was blameless, but it was Camilla who went after him that day. She couldn’t stand her sister being happy or having a man who had panted after her before.
In the 1960s Zoe and Ben finally become an item, and Esme, who is afraid of flying, finally visits Matthew and his family in San Francisco. Esme is happy. Matthew now has two daughters: Lucy and Esme, who has been dubbed Mimi so that there is no confusion with her grandmother. Matthew asks her mother to stay in San Francisco, but she tells her that her life is in England.
In 1974 Coral, who is Melissa’s daughter, sees Rosindell for the first time in a photograph when he was trying to find some things for her grandmother Camilla, who has suffered a stroke. Coral tries to find out about the house in the photograph, but Melissa is not forthcoming. When he sees a report in a magazine about Rosindell, he finds out where Zoe lives and goes to see her. Stephen is now twenty-one, and Rosindell is his as Matthew doesn’t want it. When he gets a call about trespassers in Rosindell, Coral volunteers to drive him there as he has a broken arm from playing rugby. They find a sleeping bag and some other things, which they throw away. Then Coral stays in the house to look after it. In the course of these days she comes across a man called Trevor and who claims to like Rosindell. All this time Coral has the feeling that there is someone in the house. Then when she decides to leave, Stephen comes to ask her not to leave. The thing is that she and Matthew have become closer, but when he called his flat in Bristol, a woman who claimed to be his girlfriend answered. Stephen tells her that Ivy used to be his girlfriend, but then he got too clingy and felt crowded, and when he tried to break up with her, she slashed her wrists. So now she sometimes sneaks into his flat, but he has to be careful what he says.
Coral and Stephen stay in the house that night, and when Coral goes for a walk the following day, she runs into Trevor. Then she knows that he was the presence she felt in the house all these days. Then the man reacts violently, punching her and saying that he has no right to be there as the house belongs to his mother. Stephen comes to the rescue as Trevor tries to push Coral off the cliff, but Stephen’s arm is still in a sling, so he can’t do much. Thankfully, his dog manages to get rid of the man. Coral is so afraid that she leaves for France. Trevor is actually the son of Bonny, the woman who tried to deceive Devlin, and he has always been fed all these lies about Rosellin.
The part in 1974 closes the book. Camilla dies days after her sister visits her. In the funeral there are some old friends of Camilla’s, and one of the men says something about loving Camilla and how he would have liked to marry her to be with his daughter. Then Esme needs to find out the truth about Camilla. She decides to have her birthday party in Rosellin, and everybody she loves is there even Matthew and his family. Then she goes to see Jane Fox, who was a maid to Camilla for years. The woman is scornful and doesn’t treat Esme nicely. Yet, what she reveals is what she wanted to find out. Melissa wasn’t Devlin’s daugher, but she is the daughter of the man Esme saw her with so many years ago. Now she can tell her family the truth, but she is full with a great sense of regret, sadness, and anger. Camilla destroyed every possibility of happiness and was the spark that blast them. Because of her, Esme left Devlin and both of them had to put up with such unsuitable new partners, Matthew couldn’t love the person she had fallen in love with because of a lie, and then he went off the rails. All these terrible events were a clear consequence of Camilla’s selfishness. I think it is sad even though the end is not an unhappy one as all the characters found their happiness: Zoe with Ben, Matthew with Susan and Stephen with Coral. Yet, I am sorry that Esme and Devlin didn’t have the chance to have more happy days.