An old English estate provides the backdrop for romance, mystery and loss for artist Cate Albion and Jack Coates, hired to make their way through Endsleigh House in Devon and appraise its contents for sale. Cate is fresh from New York and still smarting from a break-up; Jack is quiet, reserved, and lost in his own grief.
As they make their way through the grand but fading Endsleigh House, Cate discovers something unusual: an old shoe box still in remarkable condition, and containing items that were obvious treasures at one time. Intrigued by the Tiffany bracelet, dancing shoes, old photograph (of a young sailor), diamond brooch and dance card, Cate sets about discovering how and why these belongings were left behind by Irene Blythe, the former owner of Endsleigh. Irene has passed away; the estate is maintained only by Jo Williams, the cook and housekeeper. And Cate isn’t going to stop until she gets some answers . . . about her own love life, about Jack, about the mysterious Blythe sisters — debutantes in London society during the 1930s. About everything.
Kathleen Tessaro’s The Debutante is an enchanting novel alternating between present-day England and pre-war London, a time of optimism before World War II robbed the nation of its security and joy. It’s told between a modern narrative following Cate and a series of letters between Irene, the pragmatic older Blythe daughter, and “Baby,” the beautiful but dangerous younger debutante. As Cate delves deeper into what could have become of Baby, missing and rarely spoken of, she begins to confront what sent her scurrying from New York herself. And the answers are never easy.
I read Kathleen Tessaro’s Innocence several years ago and really enjoyed her writing style. Liquid and familiar, her words tend to draw you immediately into the fray and do an excellent job of setting the stage. At the onset, we’re catapulted into modern-day London before zooming our way to Endsleigh in Jack’s convertible — and Tessaro’s writing is such that I could feel the wind whipping through my hair. It’s easy to be drawn into the scenes she creates, and that’s what I enjoyed best about this one.
Jack and Cate’s relationship developed slowly, though I can’t say I always found it believable. Their “witty banter” often seemed forced; their exchanges disingenuous. While initially attracted to one another, there didn’t seem to be a prolonged period in which they actually talked. About life, love — anything. It was all this wandering about Endsleigh, then working to solve the mysteries before them. They worked well together as a pair, as much as they seemed to irk each other at points, and Cate’s aunt Rachel — Jack’s employer — added some levity to the tension between them. And when that tension eventually gave way to what we all saw coming, I did finally buy it.
The Debutante worked as contemporary fiction tinged with historical details — and the letters between Irene and Baby provided an enchanting look at the trials, difficulties, triumphs and aches of these two sisters. As many have said before (myself included), letter-writing as an art form was so delicate, so lovely . . . and it pains me that it’s being lost throughout the generations now. What was written and not written between the Blythe girls was fascinating, and I loved their exchanges and what a simple ” . . . ” could mean at the end of a thought. We’re losing that, I fear; and we shouldn’t. I hope ending a sentence with an ellipsis will continue to mean far more than I can say . . .
Don’t let the light-hearted pink cover fool you: this story has meat. Fans of historical fiction, British women’s fiction and stories of love and sisterly pains will find plenty to enjoy in The Debutante, a novel that flowed easily and kept me reading — both for the mystery and the love story. Those are usually some of my favorites.
4 out of 5!