Hothouse Flower by Lucinda Riley
15th Mar 2011
Floaty fonts and vaguely vintage photos of flowering gardens aside, this book has all the qualities of a certain brand of women’s fiction grown popular in recent years; woman has emotional crisis, woman seeks elderly relative/matriarchal figure for resolution of crisis, matriarchal figure tells enlightening tale of past usually involving family secret, woman feels resolved and able to attain closure.
The book weaves together multiple plots and character storylines from both modern times and the 1930s and 40s. The first part of the book concentrates on the story of Julia, a concert pianist recovering from the tragic death of her husband and young son in a run down cottage in Norfolk, near her sister’s family.
Whilst visiting the local Big House, where her grandparents worked as servants before the death of the Lady of the house and its subsequent dilapidation, Julia is reminded of her childhood love for her grandfather’s hothouses.
She re-meets the current owner, Kit Crawford, who she played with as a child. An old diary is discovered amongst the houses sale of contents and Julia pays a visit to her grandmother Elsie to discover the history of the house.
So far, so predictable. Except it takes hundreds of pages of long, middle of the road, Trollope-esque, middle class brow-beating to get to the Big Reveal of Elsie’s story.
I felt for Julia, but it all seemed a little convenient in places how the sudden appearance of Kit, who takes her under his wing and very quickly becomes her best friend earmarks her change from social recluse to lady of the manor.
The writing itself was simple, but a little slack on details. Scenes which should have been emotionally tense left me cold, such as Julia’s breaking down over memories of her son.
Elsie’s story, however, was great. Anyone with an interest in the 1930s (so that’s anyone who’s seen The King’s Speech then…) will smile in recognition of the vintage detail and occasional name-dropping (special mention to Kick Kennedy and Andrew Cavendish).
The story of Olivia, the debutante that marries into the Crawford family and the painful life that thus unfolds, was fascinating and beautifully told; this for me was the only part of the book I genuinely enjoyed and for the fifty or so pages it covers I could honestly say I was reading a page-turner.
It’s a shame, then, that we had to go back to Julia and Kit, and their boring relationship that I didn’t believe in. It just seemed so old-fashioned; I know posh people are different but I don’t know any couple in their early thirties that seriously refer to each other as “darling.”
Then the book goes back again to tell the story of Harry, Kit Crawford’s great-uncle and Olivia’s husband. Harry went to war with Julia’s grandfather Bill, ending in the same awful conditions at Changhi. However this part of the book takes place after the war, when peace has been declared and Harry is recovering from his ordeal in Bangkok.
Post-war Thailand is beautifully described, but this was my least favourite part of the book. Until this moment (and we’re now about 350 pages into a 500-page novel) I had assumed the Hothouse Flower of the title referred to the garden’s at the Big House, or in my more catty moments the rather “forced” nature of the writing. But no.
Whilst recuperating in a hotel in Bangkok, Harry falls in love with a local maid, Lidia. She is clever and hard working, but he falls for her because of her good looks (of course) and because of her supposed femininity compared to his English wife, who is naturally taller and broader.
Lidia is portrayed as slightly naive, in that she falls for Harry completely, trusting him to be her saviour in literally a couple of weeks and with no apparent cause.
This was incredibly uncomfortable to read, what with its historical misogynistic assumptions about femininity, the infantilising of supposedly “childlike” and “innocent” South Asian women by Western men, and the ongoing battle against sex tourism in the area that can be directly attributed to this not only racist but patronising paradigm.
It was also insulting to Harry, who before had appeared a sympathetic character. I would not have minded if Harry had fallen for Lidia because of her obvious intelligence and spirit, but he doesn’t, it’s just her looks and “innocent” nature.
He gives her the nickname of ‘Hothouse Flower’, because she is apparently too delicate and exotic to survive any other climate. Lidia embraces this insulting and derogatory nickname and completely changes her life for Harry, nearly losing her job in the process.
When the couple first “fall in love” he is not sure how old she is, believing that she could be as young as fourteen. She is seventeen it turns out, so still a child that he is taking advantage of. And this is supposedly the great romance for which the book is named?
The ending of the book goes back to the ongoing aga-saga of Julia. There are so many plot twists and randomly thrown in facts about the family that the end result is so complicated I was dizzy and confused.
Until the last third of the book, this is a poor woman’s beach read. If you’re looking for a book with floaty fonts and vintage flowered gardens, stick to Kate Morton, who does this all far better. Sorry.
Rating: 1/5, although fans of Joanna Trollope might enjoy it.
Recommended for: If you like books about middle-class people then this is the book for you. If you like books about the 1930s and 40s then parts of this book are for you. If you are in any way concerned about the globalisation of sexism, or if you prefer writing that doesn’t stick in your throat, give it a miss.