The Last Camellia by Sarah Jio (2 out of 5)
I wanted to love this, I really did. The cover is gorgeous. The premise, of a dual-narrative, historical mystery, is usually my favorite type. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case here.
April, 1940. Flora Lewis travels to England from the US, purportedly to work as a nanny for a family living on a lavish, but mysterious English estate. Flora’s really been hired as a flower thief, by a less than honest jackrabbit, who threatens to rough her father in the US up if she doesn’t recover the crowning jewel of the flower ring- a rare camellia, The Middlebury Pink (which I kept calling The Cadbury Pink, as in those disgusting egg candies). Of course, it doesn’t work out quite as well, as Flora grows close to not only the four children and the widowed father, but other people on the estate, including the dour Mrs. Dilloway, who has a trunk full of her own desires and secrets.
Then we have the quietly tortured Addison and her devoted husband Rex. They’re in modern day New York and escape to Livingston Manor (the very same estate that Flora was based at, as a “nanny”) for the summer to fix it up for Rex’s parents, who own it in the present day. Addison has a big secret she’s keeping- a blackmailer who’s following her. When she was younger, something very bad happened, and Addison had an unwilling role in it. She changed her name and moved on, but the blackmailer found her and is now threatening to expose her secret if she doesn’t give into his demands. Once in England, Addison runs into all of the history attached to the manor and she and Rex begin investigating what happened to Flora, Lady Anna who was lady of the manor and the woman who brought these camellias to life, and the family. Quite a twisted web is revealed.
Does Addison come clean to Rex about her past misdeed? Does the blackmailer succeed in ruining her life, or worse yet, taking her life? What happened to Lady Anna and the kids? What happened to the rare camellia? Did that blackmailer get it? What happened with Flora and her duplicitous existence? How does it all tie in, the past and the present?
The novel is beautifully set up. Both time periods- the 1940’s and present day- are well represented. Both lead female characters- Flora and Addison- are wonderfully sympathetic in their shared secrets and loves. The supporting cast is great, especially Miss Dilloway (whom I kept called Mrs. Dalloway) and Rex. However, the party ends there, at least for this reader.
I got all the way to the end before it completely lost me. There are many questions put forth- more than the ones I pose outright in this blog- that go unanswered. Flora is one of our two female leads, but you never get the full story of what happened to her. The ending seemed a little forced to me and more than a little out of left field. All of the cliches you may have run into with old school Sherlock Holmes mysteries play out in the ending here. The whodunit turns into a what? and whydunnit? The answer to both mysteries, connected as you may have guessed, delivered by the blackheart themselves, seems very weird. The rationale behind the mystery seems a little overdone, and more than a little campy. That really disappointed me. I was quite often saying “What the hell??” the last 30 pages. Up until that point, it had me. I enjoyed the setting as Ms. Jio wrote it, but the wrap-up was a bit whacked for me to give it more than 2 stars.