In the present day, a woman (Ellen) having the attic room of his home renovated is handed a piece of paper the builders find: the death certificate of a 22-year-old woman from 1872, Sarah Mills. She sets it aside, intrigued but not enough to investigate it – yet. When her husband’s 17-year-old daughter from his first marriage comes to live with them, bringing with her more emotional than physical baggage, Ellen seizes on the idea of finding out more about this girl who died so very young, involving the teenager in the search as, hopefully, a way of making some kind of connection. The results are mixed.
Sarah’s story alternates with Ellen’s. In 1868, she and her sister are left orphans, and their situation is desperate – until the aunt they never knew they had consents to take them in. Sarah on her own might be able to get by, but her younger sister Lucy is … different. She has never spoken, although Sarah knows this doesn’t mean she’s the “imbecile” everyone assumes she is, and she also has other idiosyncracies which make others uncomfortable. In other words, Lucy is autistic in a time long before that was viewed with any understanding or empathy.
How Sarah ends up dead and with a different name within the four years spanned in the book is a horribly painful story, not least because you read it knowing full well that there were hundreds, thousands of real stories just like it and worse. Alternating it with what are often called the “First World Problems” of Ellen and her stitched-together family is rather jarring; oh, dear, the teenager rolls her eyes and says “Whatever” a lot. This doesn’t look like much compared to the physical and emotional abuse Sarah and Lucy face every day, and the extremely precarious, potentially terminal circumstances over which they walk a tightrope. Even the harsher problems that develop for this modern family seem so entirely trivial beside the life-and-death situations of the 19th century. A two-day suspension from school does not exactly stack up next to the possibility of being put into a workhouse.
And, in the end, it all seems to wrap up so happily. In the 19th century, yes, Sarah dies at 22 – but everyone else seems to have an abrupt upswing in fortune, very nearly happily-ever-after. And in the 21st century, as well, everything tidies up nicely by the end of the book; if it is not a HEA, there still is no real shadow over the ending. Everything’s going to be just fine. And that doesn’t work. There are serious issues in both centuries – none of which can or should be tucked up tidily with no loose ends – and it cheapens the rest of the story that the end comes as it does.
The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.