Published: 19th September 2019
Genre: General Fiction
Trigger warnings: Drugs, sexual content, mental health storyline
One winter’s afternoon on Hampstead Heath in 1980, Elise Morceau meets Constance Holden and quickly falls under her spell. Connie is bold and alluring, a successful writer whose novel is being turned into a major Hollywood film. Elise follows Connie to LA, a city of strange dreams and swimming pools and late-night gatherings of glamorous people. But whilst Connie thrives on the heat and electricity of this new world where everyone is reaching for the stars and no one is telling the truth, Elise finds herself floundering. When she overhears a conversation at a party that turns everything on its head, Elise makes an impulsive decision that will change her life forever.
Three decades later, Rose Simmons is seeking answers about her mother, who disappeared when she was a baby. Having learned that the last person to see her was Constance Holden, a reclusive novelist who withdrew from public life at the peak of her fame, Rose is drawn to the door of Connie’s imposing house in search of a confession . . .
This was a powerful story of self-discovery which offers a profound exploration of some interesting topics as well as the enduring promise of a slowly unravelling mystery. Eloquently told over the course of dual timelines, it does not take long to become an utterly addictive read with the help of a few compelling characters and a contrasting array of settings.
There are many themes the book touches upon, most notably those of family and motherhood, and that resulted in some very meaningful passages. Parallels are drawn between characters who are perhaps unsure of their purpose in life and others who are driven firmly towards a particular path, while there are also strong underlying hints towards feminism and mental health.
One afternoon in 1980, Elise Morceau has arranged to meet someone in Hampstead Heath, but they fail to show up. She instead comes across successful author Constance Holden and is instantly taken under her spell. The two women begin a relationship, with Connie possessing the sophistication and charisma that Elise believes she herself lacks.
When Connie’s novel Wax Heart is adapted into a major Hollywood film, Elise accompanies her to Los Angeles and feels entirely out of her depth. She fails to adjust to the dramatic change of lifestyle and starts to lose her way, causing matters between her and Connie to become strained. It eventually leads to a snap decision that changes the course of their lives.
Over thirty years later, Rose Simmons is still determined to find out what happened to her mother, who disappeared when she was a baby. Her father has never been willing to talk about it, but now he presents her with a box of books written by a reclusive novelist called Constance Holden, who was the last person to see her mother alive. Rose’s investigation leads her all the way to Connie’s front door.
I was expecting the plot to be much more complex than it turned out, but the sheer quality of the storytelling meant that it was difficult to put down, as it felt like something either important or intriguing was always just around the corner. A brisk pace is established right at the start and that is maintained throughout, with events occurring along the way that enable the reader to feel involved and develop an emotional connection.
The book is separated into parts that alternate between the two timeframes; the first of them written in the third person and focusing on Elise, while the other begins in late 2017 and is narrated by Rose in the first person. They both possess a very unique feel, but at the same time they way the story is structured helps to emphasise the similar challenges that the protagonists face during their respective journeys and how they respond to them.
The perspectives of both characters are very well written and the peaks and troughs they encounter throughout are captured so effectively. Elise is quite naïve and the reader is made to feel the raft of exciting possibilities that lie before her when she meets Connie, and equally the emotional turmoil she experiences later on. Meanwhile, Rose’s story follows the opposite trajectory, starting off sad before becoming genuinely uplifting.
One of the main problems I had was that after a while I much preferred Rose’s storyline, which was incredibly powerful right from the moment she was introduced. I was heavily invested in where her relationship with Connie was going to lead and how far she would go to uncover the truth about what happened to her mother, whereas despite its many positive aspects, the 1980s timeline grew increasingly predictable and even a little repetitive.
Elise and Rose are both multi-layered and complex, but there is no doubt that Connie is the most fascinating character of all. She has a larger than life presence that makes her likeable at certain points and rather deplorable the rest of the time. There are noticeable changes in her personality during the present day timeline as she is mellowed and wounded by past mistakes, but the sharpness and shrewdness remain intact, as does the effect she has on others.
As for the rest, Rose’s friend Kelly was very entertaining to read and she represented a fun and impressive portrayal of a social media influencer. I was not sure what to make of her father, while Joe was a typical example of someone with big ambitions but lacking the means to fulfil them. My favourite character in the past timeline was Yolanda, who is loyal and selfless in the face of Elise’s struggles.
The events of the book take place across four different countries, and the settings play a key role as Elise’s life in London is heavily juxtaposed with the way she fails to adjust to Los Angeles and is made to feel like a fish out of water. In the present, Connie’s home seems to contain a lot of secrets and it had a certain atmosphere about it which suggested that going inside was almost like stepping back in time.
Unlike Jessie Burton’s previous two novels, this one is more contemporary but her writing style holds up superbly here with its usual touch of literary panache. I loved the way that passages from Connie’s books and little snippets of social commentary are incorporated into the narrative, which balances out the more hard-hitting aspects. The ending is left open to interpretation, which in this case works perfectly in the context of the story.
Overall, this is an absorbing read that delivered a great deal of symbolism and provoked a range of feelings. The characters take centre stage and really drive the story, making it one that you will not forget in a hurry. There was the odd occasion where the past timeline did lose a little bit of its spark, but apart from that it rarely falls short of expectations.
Poignant, character-driven, and very well written. It is not my favourite book by Jessie Burton, but it is still highly accomplished and I really liked it.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐