This is a historical set in New Zealand in 1866, and features one of the pluckiest heroines I’ve read recently. Guinevere is an English Lady who grew up on an estate with her open-minded father. Father loved artists, and the manor house was always full of artists, occasionally naked models, and progressive dinner conversation. Her father was so generous, in fact, that he pretty much lost all their money and mortgaged her beloved home to a neighbor, with the provision that, if Dad couldn’t repay the loan, Gwen could just marry the neighbor and keep the house anyway.
Gwen and her father travel to New Zealand to photograph a possibly extinct bird, because that picture could pay enough to get their house back. Unfortunately, dad didn’t survive the sea voyage. Gwen strikes out on her own, because it’s either get the picture or marry the stuffy old guy. She is told by every man she meets to “listen to reason,” it’s “for her own good,” and she is over it. She walks off into the forest with an old horse, a dog, and her father’s camera.
In the forest, Gwen meets Quinn, a gold-hunting Irishman who really, really hates the English nobility. He tries to give her advice in “that dismissive tone of male superiority she’d come to hate over the past month,” and she kindly tells him back off. Then she nearly drowns in a flood and he rescues her, so they have to continue their arguments over class while she recuperates in her hotel room. Quinn fully believes that Gwen sees him as some sort of servant, that she wouldn’t really talk to him as an equal, and that they aren’t friends. In fact, Gwen sees him as a decent chap who’s just a bit haunted.
The best parts of this book were the friendly chats between Gwen and Quinn, mostly because they came to lovingly tease each other:
“Just as a certain insufferable Irishman had once predicted, I was turned out without a character.”
“I knew it!” Quinn was triumphant.
She sighed. “My only consolation in this whole sorry affair is the knowledge that no gentleman would ever gloat over a woman’s misfortunes.”
They also discuss her unusual upbringing and Quinn’s biases against the upper class. He knows poverty and hard work, whereas she knows the luxury of discussing art and having servants clean the home.
The second-best parts of the book were the historical details. New Zealand had a bit of a gold rush, so it attracted all sorts of people. Gwen starts out in a small town that was probably the same as any in San Francisco or Alaska at that time, with crooked hotels, supply stores, and saloons with dancing girls. Then she makes her way to Christchurch, which is more civilized, and she works as a maid, finally learning about furniture polish and how to clean out a fireplace.
Gwen also turns her photography hobby into a career. She takes portraits of the rich in stuffy settings, yet she also focuses on the unseen workers like cooks and maids. Her eyes are opened as her fortunes rise and fall, and she uses her camera to share her view with the world.
The worst parts of the book were the times Gwen lost everything. It happened more than once. The first time, I could understand it as a good plot device. I just wish she didn’t have to be victimized again and again. She always turned her thoughts to her ancestors, who had never backed away from adversity, and picked herself up and dusted herself off. And except for the time she nearly drowned in a river, she did it without any help from a man.
This book is a fascinating glimpse of time and place, and it covers social issues of class and gender. With all that, the romance is sweet but very slow to burn. Quinn is too hung up on his past and prejudice to make any sort of move, and Gwen is too focused on saving her house and eventually returning to England to give him an opening. It all works out in the end, but I wouldn’t have minded a few more makeout sessions.
Click to purchase: Amazon
by Zana Bell
Release Date: October 7, 2014
Publisher: Choc Lit