Though I’ve read the entirety of the Pink Carnation series, this was my first time trying any of Willig’s other work, and while her voice was recognizable, it had a very different feel. While the Pink Carnation series certainly deals with dark subject matters (espionage, war, murder, and secret societies), especially the first few novels in the series were very light hearted. As a result, I was surprised by how much darker and more serious this one felt in comparison.
While at her brother Bay’s winter ball to celebrate his newly built house, Janie Van Duyvil and her cousin Anne go in search of their host to remind him of his duties. Instead of finding a forgetful or distracted host, they discover Bay in the garden, stabbed and dying, while his wife Annabelle appears to have been pushed into the Hudson River. Questions abound about what happened, and the press latches onto cuckolded husband narrative, guessing that Bay killed them both in a murder-suicide despite the fact that stabbing oneself seems like a rather ineffective suicide method.
Janie wonders about what happened to her distant older brother, who always had a stronger relationship with their cousin, and his wife that night. Her mother is more concerned with weathering through the storm and avoiding the scandal, just wanting a quick closure to it all but Janie wants to know the truth about who Bay and Annabelle were, what their relationship was like and what secrets they may have had. In her search for the truth, she forms an alliance with a journalist, James Burke, the only one who even initially suggested that her brother was a murder victim rather than a murderer.
The novel flashes between Janie’s perspective in 1899 after the murder, and Georgie in 1894 when she meets a man named Bay Van Duyvil while acting on a London stage. Long relegated to simply obeying her mother and forgotten in the corner, Janie finally finds her voice and starts acting as she wants rather than always submitting to other people’s wills and expectations. The novel explores class and money in 1890s New York with some minor comparisons to British culture where it might seem stricter but is at least easy to understand due to titles and ranks, and shows how restrictive the rules and expectations of class and gender are.
I actually enjoyed this novel quite a bit – there were enough twists and turns that I didn’t see them all coming or was always waiting for the other shoe to drop so then the lack of twist was a surprise. Willig does a good job of keeping the reader on their toes without making it implausible, and creates engaging characters, revealing deeper emotions and tearing away the facades they wear when out in society. While much less comical than some of her earlier novels, it is a quick, page-turning read, and would be perfect for a rainy afternoon with tea or hot chocolate.