Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book Review: The Last Camellia, by Sarah Jio

Title: The Last Camellia
Author: Sarah Jio
Publisher: Plume
Publication Year: 2013
Read: July 2013
Where It Came From: BEA Galley
Rating: 4 Flowers

A historical/contemporary split novel about two women in different decades at an English estate. In 1940 Flora agrees to search for a rare camellia for a ring of flower thieves, while acting as nanny for manor’s motherless children. In 2000 Addison, a landscape designer summering with her husband at the estate, is curious about a missing flower record. As Addison uncovers evidence of what occurred at the house in the past, both story lines head to dangerous encounters with killers.

I love split narratives that use the present day research story to build suspense for the historical narrative, and Sarah Jio uses the technique to full effect. As far as dangerous situations go, spying for a flower thief is relatively tame, a judgment that is only upheld by the narrative's initially focusing on the burgeoning romance between Flora and the wealthy young man she meets on the passage to England. When Flora arrives to work at the manor house she finds a family seemingly identical to the von Trapps of The Sound of Music, and a below stairs staff friendlier than the one in Downton Abbey.

But the benign appearances of characters may be deceiving. From Addison’s research the reader knows that there was a serial killer on the loose when Flora was living in the manor, and there is something suspicious about Flora's employer as well as the now-elderly housekeeper (though admittedly this could be dependent on previous experience with Rebecca). We also learn that Flora went missing after a short employment. With those clues, every chapter that returns to the past has delicious tension. Who is killing women on the manor? Does Flora find the flower before the flower thieves run out of patience? Why is the flower missing in 2000? This is a story about unraveling mysteries, whether in the past or in the present, and everything moves along quickly until the only question remaining is whether the story would have been different without the prologue.

In all, a well-balanced book, achieving an amazingly comfortable mood considering its notes of creepiness (a rather novel combination!). I've already snuck my copy into my mother's to-read pile because I had so much fun reading it.

1 comment:

Alyssa L. said...

This sounds really good! Do you know if her other books are similar? We could make a list of books with the present day research/historical narrative splits! This one, Possession, Arcadia (okay, a play, not a book, but it can still be read!), the Secret History of the Pink Carnation (which Bonnie really hated, but I thought was frothy and fun)...I'm sure you have many more possible entries to this list than I can come up with at the moment! :D

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