Lucinda Riley’s The Orchid House should’ve been everything I wanted in a novel. It’s a story of a famous pianist as she explores her family’s history in the wake of a personal tragedy. The narrative weaves between the present and the past telling a story that is arrestingly modern but that echoes with the lushness of a typical period piece.
And yet, the story never quite seems to be either contemporary or classic.
The Orchid House follows Julia Forrester, world-renowned pianist, and her sudden love affair with Kit Crawford, the new lord of Wharton Park. In the beginning, we see Julia in the grip of full depression: she barely eats, she never leaves her cottage, and she has stopped playing the piano. She owns a lovely hillside house in the south of France, but refuses to return there. As the story unfolds we learn that the loss of her husband, also a pianist, and her son has left Julia adrift in the world. That she was in the middle of a recital when they died only amplifies her sense of guilt.
A sudden illness leaves Julia bedridden for three days during which Kit takes care of her. Kit is the new and reluctant heir to Wharton Park following the death of Madame Crawford, his aunt. He is intent on selling the property, but the appearance of the pianist delays his plans (well, that, and the lack of a buyer for the property). While he nurses Julia back to health, Kit finds himself falling for Julia. But can they build a relationship in the shadow of a crumbling house?
I was expecting to like this story more than I did. Unfortunately, The Orchid House didn’t quite reach my expectations when it comes to stories. The largest problem was the overwhelming maudlin atmosphere that pervaded the piece. It seems like everyone is crying or bemoaning their fate every few pages. At some point, the narrator attempts to create sympathy for the former lord of Wharton Park, Harry Crawford. The central point of sympathy, though, is that he married a beautiful, confident woman who was more than capable of running an estate while he was off at war (and that he couldn’t give up his wealth to marry a Thai woman he knew for two weeks).
In keeping with the maudlin feel, the experiences these characters have gone through are a little too extreme. Julia lost her husband and child before the book even starts. There was a point in the novel where Kit starts talking about an old girlfriend, and I thought to myself, “She probably started doing heroin and sleeping with guys to get a fix.” And she did! Ridiculous. Then, in a flashback, Olivia (Kit’s aunt who dies at the beginning of the novel) married Harry Crawford only to discover him kissing another man. Then Harry has to explain that he’s not gay, he just had to make sure. And then someone comes back from the dead and that scene pushed this novel into the realm of the histrionic. It could not be saved after that.
One of the most disturbing themes in the novel is the erasure of the poor. There are points where Olivia literally feels bad about being rich, which I guess was supposed to make her sympathetic. She sees the unemployed masses and then buys a designer dress, so this characterization didn’t quite work for me. But the portrayal of the poor is absolutely horrendous. On the eve of Olivia’s debut, poor people (and/or servants) crowd around her car and cheer for her. That scene creates an image that oversimplifies the impoverished during this time. Or, rather, it creates an image of the poor as overly simple. Which segues into looking at Olivia’s personal servant at Wharton Park, Elsie, who also happens to be Julia’s grandmother. Elsie is not just overjoyed to work for Olivia, she looks up to Olivia as a superior person. Elsie is paid more to wait on Olivia, but the hero-worship is free.
Finally, the greatest failing in The Orchid House is the author’s over-reliance on interpretation. This literally happens on every page. Julia stared out the window because she was depressed. Kit felt hollow inside because he had to leave his drug-addicted girlfriend. Harry behaved this way because of A, B, and C. Olivia felt shell-shocked. I don’t need to be told why a character is doing something. As a reader, I can infer why Julia is staring out the window or biting her nails or tapping her foot. The Orchid House, however, feels the need to explain everything. And that made this a tedious read.
Overall, I would not recommend The Orchid House. There are parts that are interesting: the description of Thailand, the details of flowers, the transformation of England from summer to fall to winter to spring. But the moments of effective writing are overshadowed by the weaknesses that bring The Orchid House crumbling down.
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