Published: 4th February 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trigger warnings: Racism, agoraphobia
London, 1754. Six years after leaving her newborn, Clara, at London’s Foundling Hospital, young Bess Bright returns to reclaim the illegitimate daughter she has never really known. Dreading the worst – that Clara has died in care – the last thing she expects to hear is that her daughter has already been reclaimed. Her life is turned upside down as she tries to find out who has taken her little girl – and why.
Les than a mile from Bess’ lodgings in a quiet town house, a wealthy widow barely ventures outside. When her close friend – an ambitious doctor at the Foundling Hospital – persuades her to hire a nursemaid for her young daughter, she is hesitant to welcome someone new into her home and her life. But her past is threatening to catch up with her – and will soon tear her carefully constructed world apart.
This is a highly immersive and engaging story in which a neat, intelligent concept is executed to very good effect. Elegantly written and told from the dual perspectives of two deeply contrasting central characters, its plot unfolds in a way that piques the reader’s curiosity by presenting a mysterious set of circumstances that leave you intently searching for answers.
It was enjoyable to read a book set during the Georgian period, and London and its class divisions are depicted with great vividness and sophistication. The other major theme at play is motherhood, which is fundamental to the story and is explored from various angles, providing added layers of depth that enabled me to develop a closer connection to the characters.
The year is 1748, and Bess Bright has just given birth to an illegitimate daughter, Clara. Unable to keep her baby, she is accompanied by her father to the Foundling hospital, who agree to take Clara under their care until such a time when Bess is ready to reclaim her. To identify her daughter from the other children, Bess leaves behind half of a heart made from whalebone, carved with their initials.
When she returns to the hospital to collect Clara six years later, Bess is shocked to learn that her daughter has already been claimed, by someone giving her own name and address. All of her efforts to find out what happened come to nothing and she returns home feeling resigned, but not before she encounters a young girl who resembles her.
Across London, a widow named Alexandra lives a sheltered life in the company of her two servants and her young daughter Charlotte. She only leaves the house once per week but is occasionally visited by Doctor Mead of the Foundling Hospital, who convinces her to hire a nursemaid for Charlotte, a decision that threatens to uncover secrets from her past.
The direction the plot takes is relatively straightforward, but engrossing all the same. When Bess discovers that Clara has been taken away from the hospital, it opened up a huge can of worms that kept me guessing for a lengthy period of time, and I liked the way that all of these matters were resolved. Conversely, some of the elements were much easier to predict, yet this too did not detract from the story.
I was actually quite surprised by how quickly the plot moved forward in the beginning. The opening chapters almost act like an extended prologue before it jumps ahead to 1654 for the remainder of the book. Indeed, the pace was fairly steady throughout and the storylines of both Bess and Alexandra were equally captivating.
The entire story is told in the first person from the point of view of both characters. It begins with Bess, who is unable to read or write and lives in an impoverished area of London, and the language she uses is relatively informal. Then we switch to Alexandra, and the introduction of her voice is matched by a sharp change in the tone. She is educated and well-spoken, and that is reflected in the writing.
I found Alexandra the most fascinating character in the book, and definitely the most complex. She sometimes comes across as cruel and even prejudiced, but a lot of that is caused by fear and I found the subject of her agoraphobia quite affecting. I also liked how it explored her relationship with other characters, particularly Charlotte and Doctor Mead.
Bess possesses a lot more warmth and although the story saw me experience a range of emotions, I was always rooting for her. Most of the supporting characters were also well developed; I really liked Keziah and her family, along with Doctor Mead and the two servants; while Bess’ brother Ned was totally unlikable. The only one who I wish could have been developed more was Lyle, but he was still fun to read.
I really loved the ending. It did not contain a huge amount of drama or tension and perhaps it could be described as somewhat understated, but for me it felt perfect. It was the ideal way to end both Bess and Alexandra’s story, even if some might say it was a little convenient. It certainly left a very positive impression upon finishing the book.
The settings and their contexts were impressively detailed and vibrant. Alexandra’s house is made to feel like a joyless, claustrophobic place, while the same could be said about the more modest lodgings that Bess shares with her father and brother. Compare that with the Foundling hospital, which is a place of activity and entertainment, and where distinguished people are invited to watch a lottery that decides if a child is to be accepted. Yes, each child’s fate is determined by a lottery…
Overall, this was a well written and at times moving story that kept me fully invested until the end. There were some areas that I felt could have been developed slightly more, but it was engaging with a great use of perspectives, thought-provoking characters, and a wonderful ending. A beautiful cover, and a more than satisfactory book.
A really enjoyable story with excellent dual narratives and writing that kept me fully absorbed. Stacey Halls is becoming a favourite author of mine.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐