In 2000, American Addison Sinclair has packed up to live the dream of many an anglophile: she and her writer husband, Rex, are freshly arrived at a newly-purchased family estate in the English countryside. Livingston Manor’s past unfurls through the stoic and elderly housekeeper, Miss Dilloway, and the many botany books Addison discovers in the home.
Once she learns of Flora, an amateur botanist and fellow American once contracted to care for Lord Livingston’s four children as a nanny . . . and something more sinister. What became of her? As Addison learns more about the Livingstons’ camellia orchard and the ill-fated woman who once loved them, decades-old murder mysteries combine with the ghostly specter of Addison’s past to unearth a hotbed of secrets.
Sarah Jio is quickly becoming a star in the world of historical fiction. With The Last Camellia, her fourth novel, the dual narratives of two Americans marooned at Livingston Manor in England intersect in consistent — if somewhat predictable — ways.
So. The good. It’s impossible to traverse Livingston Manor without pausing to smell the roses, so to speak. The atmosphere Jio creates is intoxicating: a grand British estate; a severe but kindhearted housekeeper; mysterious children kept under lock and key; a glorious, hidden conservatory in the center of the mansion. Though all the camellia talk became tiring, especially when discussing the elusive Middlebury Pink, I appreciated the warmth and grandeur conveyed in this vivid story. I never forgot where I was — and the manor could easily have been something out of “Downton Abbey.”
Maybe that’s why I was initially drawn into the story? The talk of servants and lords, the distinctly British feel. The air of mystery is inescapable, having me question Addison’s present and Flora’s past in one fell swoop.
But then I figured everything out.
Look, putting the pieces together doesn’t always preclude me from enjoying a story. As a reader, I’m not always astute; sometimes I read for the sheer pleasure of it, refusing to slide the various clues into place. I’m the same way with movies. Though the answers seem obvious, I don’t play along. I just keep turning the pages, waiting to be surprised the way an author likely intended.
Other times, though? Well, other times I just can’t help but figure things out. Little clues feel learn toward sledgehammers instead of subtleties. For as much as I enjoy Jio’s stories, I can’t shake the feeling that they’re a little too much “tell” and not enough “show” for me.
In the case of The Last Camellia, I was far more invested in Flora than Addison; an air of mystery lingered longer with our mysterious nanny-turned-flower-stalker than it did for our modern character. I never really got a sense of Addison — and her back story felt hokey, honestly. The transitions were clunky. We shuffle from 2000 to 1940 and then to “fifteen years earlier,” when a teenage Addison was taken in by a drunken aunt. The circumstances surrounding Addison’s childhood and formative years, meeting Rex, getting married — all left out. I never got a sense of Rex and the Sinclair family, either; they were just kind of . . . there. We know Rex is at Livingston Manor to write a novel and is, perhaps, drawing inspiration from his wife’s discoveries about previous tenants, but he feels a bit like a prop. The story isn’t about him, I know, but it was hard to ignore someone tossed into the action with no real part to play.
The Livingston family, on the other hand, felt much better realized. Eldest daughter Katherine was realistically drawn and sympathetic. Her interactions with Flora could be frustrating, but one can’t help but feel for a girl who has lost her mother. Flora’s yearning for her family was palpable, while the developing “romance” with a character connected to the Livingstons in an unexpected way was never fully developed. Because I never dug in deep with Flora and her beau, I couldn’t fully appreciate the dramatic conclusion. And the mystery that failed to really be a mystery just left me indifferent.
Despite my issues, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy this story — because I really did. I read the whole thing in a few days, tearing through it once I’d reached the halfway point. Jio has a talent for wrapping readers up in her stories and a gift for the dual narrative. The shifts between past and present weren’t always seamless, but it’s a quick read with enough historical intrigue to keep readers happy. If you’ve enjoyed Jio’s previous novels or are simply looking for a fun story with a modern and vintage vibe, The Last Camellia may be just the ticket.
3.5 out of 5!