Book review: Hothouse Flower by Lucinda Riley

Love is the sweetest thing - but it can also be the strangest thing.

By Pam Norfolk
Friday, 25th March 2011, 6:00 am

It has led Julia Forrester from the heady heights of happiness to the depths of despair and desolation. Now she’s on the run from memories too painful to contemplate.

But ahead is a spectacular collision course with her family history and the triumphs and tragedies of an earlier generation.

Hothouse Flower, a gripping and yet gracefully eloquent tale of two families forever bound together by simmering and sensational secrets, is set to put a special bloom on Richard and Judy’s spring book club picks.

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Lucinda Riley’s bittersweet, epic and multi-layered novel weaves beguilingly between the present day and the uncertain and perilous pre-Second World War period when relationships came under extraordinary and alien pressures.

Using a finely tuned narrative and panoramic backcloth, Riley sweeps her captive audience from a peaceful mansion in rural Norfolk to the stunning seascapes of France’s Côte d’Azur and the colour, heat and grinding poverty of post-war Thailand.

And along the way we encounter the age-old dilemma of choosing between love and duty, the pain and suffering of war and the high price of hiding the truth.

As a child, international pianist Julia Forrester spent many idyllic hours in the hothouse at beautiful Wharton Park estate in Norfolk where her head gardener grandfather Bill Stafford tended the exotic blooms.

So when she is hit by an unthinkable tragedy, she returns to her Norfolk roots and meets up with Kit Crawford, the new owner of Wharton Park, who is preparing to sell the mansion and live in the old gardener’s cottage in the grounds.

As their friendship begins to blossom, Kit discovers an old diary written from the notorious Changi Jail during the war years and, with the help of Julia’s grandmother, they start to unravel a love affair that almost destroyed Wharton Park.

It all began back in the London season of 1939 when debutante Olivia Drew-Norris married handsome aristocrat Harry Crawford and moved to his charming Norfolk estate.

For Olivia, it was a love match but Harry proved a complex man and in the short time they spent together before war broke out, he was evasive and distant towards her.

Just before he left for the Far East, she made a devastating discovery about him which threatened to shatter their marriage.

But even worse was to come...and the fortunes of Olivia and Harry will have terrible consequences for generations to come.

Riley shows us love in all its different forms - unswerving maternal love, unrequited love, love that burns brightly for a short time and the love that never dies.

And amidst this patchwork quilt of rivalries and relationships, secrets from the past wriggle out and spread themselves into the least expected places.

Romantic, revealing and rich in heart-rending emotion and atmospheric detail, Hothouse Flower could well be the pick of Richard and Judy’s spring bunch.

(Penguin, paperback, £7.99)