Teetering towards being terribly overwrought, we didn’t love this book, but if you enjoy light historical fiction and want a beach read for a lazy trip to Thailand, or a breezy read for your long-haul flight there, this could fit the bill.
The modern-day story centres around Julia Forrester, who grew up visiting an estate where her grandfather worked as a gardener, and was a particular expert in orchids. Recovering from a family tragedy in France, she meets Kit Crawford, the heir to the estate. The estate has fallen on hard times and he’s looking to sell. A diary uncovered here leads to the unravelling of a story featuring family secrets stretching back to the end of World War II. Involving an earlier heir to the estate’s affair with a Thai woman working at The Oriental hotel, the historical story shifts to Bangkok and briefly Ko Chang (with a train trip that we don’t think ever existed...)
While written assuredly enough, some of the plot twists and turns are contrived and convenient. This isn't entirely unexpected for this kind of page-turning saga, for sure, but a lot in the book also seems to be told to us rather than shown to us.
Some of the details made us cringe: Kit, for instance, describes to Julia his realisation that he must live again (!) when he sees Burmese kids in a refugee camp on the Thai border: “These kids were stranded in no-man’s land. They weren’t in a place of safety — the Thai government refused to let them in, but they’d face death if they went home. There was literally no future for them. And yet — for the first time, Kit’s eyes glinted with tears — they were all so grateful for the smallest thing you gave them. A new football was like handing over World Cup Final tickets.”
Or, later: “Lidia (the Thai woman) may be many things, but even he struggled to see her as mistress of an estate such as this. Besides, the cold would kill her. His Hothouse Flower would wilt and die." Can you hear the cinematic violins?
Bangkok is quite well described, but we didn’t learn anything we didn’t already know about the period. The occasional error creeps in: there is no “colonial” architecture in Thailand as the kingdom was never colonised. The book relied on the idea of Thai orchids having a scent somewhat heavily, considering that most orchids we’ve seen in Thailand don’t have any scent at all (yes, some do, but in our experience of growing them, your average Thai orchid doesn’t; the scent of orchids isn’t synonymous with Thailand for us).
We’d perhaps pick up this 2010-published book if we wanted to absorb ourselves in something Thailand-connected for a day or two by the pool. The story moves deftly and is swiftly enough paced to be entertaining; just don’t expect it to be a full exploration of post World War II Bangkok nor of Thai culture.
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