In this haunting and richly imagined dual-narrative tale that echoes the eerie mystery of Rebecca and The Little Stranger, two women of very different eras are united by the secrets hidden within the walls of an English manor house.
In 1933, naive twenty-two year-old Alice—pregnant and unmarried—is in disgrace. Her mother banishes her from London to secluded Fiercombe Manor in rural Gloucestershire, where she can hide under the watchful eye of her mother’s old friend, the housekeeper Mrs. Jelphs. The manor’s owners, the Stantons, live abroad, and with her cover story of a recently-deceased husband Alice can have her baby there before giving it up for adoption and returning home. But as Alice endures the long, hot summer at Fiercombe awaiting the baby’s birth, she senses that something is amiss with the house and its absentee owners.
Thirty years earlier, pregnant Lady Elizabeth Stanton desperately hopes for the heir her husband desires. Tormented by the memory of what happened after the birth of her first child, a daughter, she grows increasingly terrified that history will repeat itself, with devastating consequences.
After meeting Tom, the young scion of the Stanton family, Alice becomes determined to uncover the clan’s tragic past and exorcise the ghosts of this idyllic, isolated house. But nothing can prepare Alice for what she uncovers. Soon it is her turn to fear: can she escape the tragic fate of the other women who have lived in the Fiercombe valley . . .
Tragic events, buried secrets, and a mysterious manor tether the lives of two English women, separated by 30 years, in Riordan's (Birdcage Walk) Gothic-style dual narrative. Beginning in 1932, narrator Alice Eveleigh, a naive 22-year-old in London, becomes romantically involved with a married man. When she becomes pregnant, Alice's shamed parents concoct a story about a dead husband and whisk her out of the city to an old friend, a buttoned-up housekeeper at the Stanton family's Fiercombe Manor in the Cotswolds. The novel then backs up to 1898, with the other narrator, Lady Elizabeth Stanton, expecting a second child; she hopes it is a healthy boy, an heir for her demanding husband. In 1932, Alice spends her own pregnancy exploring Fiercombe, reading Elizabeth's hidden diary, discovering haunting old photos and discarded toys, and experiencing strange phenomena screeching owls and "murmuring" wind. She befriends the estate's heir, Tom Stanton, and discovers that she and Elizabeth share a bond: "My life apparently turning into a morbid echo of Elizabeth's." When a shocking secret is revealed, Alice fears for herself and her baby. Riordan's bewitching blend of tainted aristocrats, secretive domestics, and manipulative quacks amid a crumbling English country home is atmospheric and entertaining.
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Perfect for historical fiction fans.
Remember the first moments when Jane Eyre first meets Thornfield? That broody and slightly grey-tinged bleakness that sends a shudder. Riordan manages to incorporate much of that same feeling into Fiercombe Manor, another grand old house with a history that isn’t at first apparent.
Told in two perspectives: Alice, the more current woman of 1933 and her counterpart from thirty-odd years earlier Lady Elizabeth. This story twists and turns, as the two reveal their stories to unearth an unexpected connection that is far more than their pregnancies.
Tucked into the Gloucestershire countryside, this manor house has become Alice’s refuge as she waits for her child, conceived out of wedlock to be born. Lord and Lady Stanton are not in residence, so Alice’s only company is the housekeeper, a friend of her mother, and a skeleton staff. Alice was an enjoyable character, intelligent, curious and determined to find out the secrets of the house. Her relationship with her mother is understandably strained because of her pregnancy and its resulting family disgrace, and sending her away is the best option.
Lady Elizabeth, some thirty years earlier is awaiting the birth of her child, fervently hoping for a boy to please her husband. Her own concerns about her first pregnancy and worries over disappointing her husband by not fulfilling her role as his wife are preying on her. The house doesn’t help: there are secrets here and the home is said to be haunted: imagery aplenty for two women who, ultimately, are unhappy with their lot in life.
While compelling, there are places where the story does drag and the correlation of the two stories feels repetitive, even though only tangentially in reality. The characters are well-developed and feel honest: most intriguing is the treatment of both women: the expectations, scorn, shunning and even the mystery surrounding Elizabeth’s first child Isabelle. The correlations between the women feeling trapped and confined by house and circumstances, and the changes in medical approaches to pregnancy and post-partum depression are interesting and add layers of questions and interest.
Slowly the secrets of the house are revealed and Alice comes to unearth secrets long buried in the history of Fiercombe, with connections that no one quite expected. A lovely story to curl up with: this was not especially a read that I couldn’t put down, but I was intrigued and engaged to such a degree that I looked forward to getting back to it. Perfect for historical fiction fans.
I received an eArc copy of this title from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.