The book begins in 1877 London where seventeen-year old Frances has been brought up in a very sheltered life of privilege. All of that changes when her father dies unexpectedly, and she finds out that he recently lost all of his money in a bad investment. The wealthy part of Frances’ family are her mother’s relatives, who never accepted Frances or her father (who was Irish) as a part of their world, and now see her father’s death as an excuse to drop all support. Left penniless and alone, Frances has few options. She does not want to go live with her father’s sister, in a poor, crowded household where she would work as nursemaid to 3 young children and be forever labeled as unsuited for marriage or society.
Frances reluctantly accepts her only other option: a marriage proposal from Dr. Edwin Matthews, a distant cousin who lives in South Africa. This young woman who has never ventured beyond the confines of London society sets off alone to an unknown world. While traveling on the ship, Frances meets William Westbrook, an attractive and charismatic diamond trader who seems to be everything that Edwin is not.
South Africa turns out to be a desolate and rugged place, and her new home with Edwin has none of the luxuries and amenities with which she is accustomed. She is lonely and isolated and pines for William, who lives in a distant town. Frances encounters all sorts of challenges (some of her own making) and battles illness, loneliness, and extreme weather. Eventually, she begins to open up to the new world around her and learns more about herself as well.
I found the historical context here fascinating, since I knew nothing at all about South Africa’s more distant past. The descriptions of the towns, the desert, the mining operations, and even the politics of the time held my rapt attention. However, like many others in my book group, I had trouble with Frances. She was just so helpless and so naïve and seemed - from my modern perspective – to be taken in so easily by those out for their own needs. Of course, much of this was common for that time in history, but it made it hard to relate to Frances or empathize with her. Other readers in our group didn’t have that problem. Overall, I was glad to have read the novel, Frances grew on me a bit as the story progressed, and I learned a lot about South Africa’s history.
432 pages, Amy Einhorn Books (Putnam)