Life is hard for Beattie Blaxland, a young Scottish woman struggling to help her family make ends meet in Glasgow. It’s 1929 and everyone is struggling to stay afloat, clutching tightly to their meager wages and stretching them as far as they can. Beattie tries to help her parents by working at a restaurant, and this is where she meets Henry. His marital status doesn’t keep him from flirting with pretty young Beattie, an innocent girl with hopes for the future. Their flirtation eventually leads to clandestine trysts, contact Beattie uses as an escape from her troubled home life. Though she knows it’s wrong, the affair still feels good — until Beattie discovers she’s pregnant.
Disowned by her mother and exiled from the house, Beattie eventually tells Henry about her condition — and the response isn’t positive. Beattie is encouraged by a friend to escape to a country home for women “in her way” until the baby is born. Devastated at having lost both her parents and Henry in one fell swoop, Beattie is shocked to find Henry arriving at the group home with plans for an escape to Tasmania. He’s left his stubborn old mule of a wife, he tells her, and wants to start over. Start over with Beattie and their child.
Life in Tasmania is no cake walk, and Henry soon spends his slight wages on drink rather than food for she and Lucy, their infant daughter. Left to her own devices once again, Beattie tries to turn over a new leaf elsewhere in the country. Through happenstance she discovers Wildflower Hill, a country estate run by a lecherous rich Englishman, and it’s there that her story — and the later story of Emma, her granddaughter — is born.
Kimberley Freeman’s Wildflower Hill is one of the most enchanting, engrossing and poignant novels I’ve read in a long time. It was so absorbing that I tackled all 544 pages over a few days, reading as much of Emma and Beattie’s story as I could between pesky obligations like work and sleep. Freeman enchanted me with her stories of life in Scotland, Australia and Tasmania, and I was truly sad when I turned the last page. I could have read 500 more.
Wildflower Hill spans three generations of women as it fluctuates between Beattie’s third-person past and Emma’s firsthand accounts of life as a prima ballerina in modern-day London, followed by her unexpected return to Sydney and Wildflower Hill Beattie once called home. There’s so much happening here — so very much — but I never once felt bogged down or frustrated with the novel. The pacing is such that you feel as if you’re on a gripping rollercoaster, gliding from one plot point to another.
I’ll admit to taking more of a shine to Beattie than Emma, who initially comes across as a spoiled snot, but the beauty of Wildflower Hill stems from how well I knew these characters by the book’s close. Beattie is an extraordinary woman who spins wheat into gold with nothing more than her two hands and honest ingenuity, and my heart genuinely broke for her at each tragic turn in her life. Despite the weight of the cards stacked against her, Beattie perseveres and finds success. She’s a role model for Emma, who wants nothing more than to dance, and it’s through Beattie’s life and past that Emma finds the will to move forward after a career-ending injury.
The book is stitched together with secrets and mysteries, including what happens to Lucy and how Beattie eventually triumphs over her poverty-stricken existence. Freeman masterfully builds suspense by revealing just enough of the past to keep us intrigued, and we often know things about Beattie’s life far before her granddaughter does. I loved the switches between past and present, highlighting the ways this grandmother and granddaughter were alike — and different.
And the settings. Oh, the settings! Urban Scotland and the wilds of Tasmania! The nasty countryfolk who couldn’t accept an unwed mother and the philandering boyfriend who couldn’t appreciate a good thing — Emma — when he saw it! And all this is to say nothing of the romances building slowly and erupting in both past and present, making me swoon with every page. And cry, too.
By now, I’m guessing you figured out I absolutely loved this book. It had everything I crave in a story: the perfect blend of historical and contemporary fiction; family dynamics; epic romance; enough mystery and intrigue to keep me reading frantically; a wham-BANG! of an ending that had tears rolling down my cheeks. Don’t let the book’s size deter you: this was the most fun I’ve had with a book in a long, long time. Fans of contemporary and women’s fiction will delight in this modern-day The Thornbirds, a novel rivaling this one in terms of scope and family drama (but with a happier ending).
It’s an instant favorite. Don’t miss it.
5 out of 5!