29th Nov 2011
The Girl on the Cliff by Lucinda Riley
The international bestseller was praised for its gripping romance and multi-layered narrative, and if you were hoping for a similar follow up, The Girl on the Cliff will not disappoint. In fact, the only disappointment may come in discovering just how similar these novels are.
The majority of the story follows Grania Ryan, a young woman who has suffered a recent tragedy in her life and so impulsively decides to return to her family home (if you’ve read Hothouse Flower, this may be the bit where things start to sound familiar).
Grania is welcomed with open arms at her parents’ farm in rural Ireland, although they do not pretend to understand her motives for abandoning her trendy New York loft and leaving behind her loving American boyfriend.
As she sits on the cliff tops trying to come to terms with her emotions, she meets a bright young girl called Aurora Lisle. Aurora’s energy and enthusiasm begins to heal Grania’s wounds, but Grania’s mother, Kathleen is disturbed by their rapidly strengthening bond.
When Grania becomes quite taken with Aurora’s widowed father, and agrees to move in to Dunworley House to take care of the girl, Kathleen decides that her daughter needs to know the truth.
With a bundle of ancient letters and snippets from Kathleen’s own memory, Grania starts to piece together the saga, and quickly learns that the bitter history between the Ryans and the Lisles is marked by one tragic relationship after another.
We see young love ripped apart in WW1 London, a young starlet going off the rails in the 1930s, and a horrific event from Kathleen’s own teenage years that she was determined never to revisit.
These flashbacks capture the time and place beautifully, and in my opinion the stories of Mary, the nursemaid, and Anna, the self-destructive ballerina, are the highlights of the novel. The old-fashioned, romantic style works better here than in the present-day scenario.
Not only are the historical parts more pleasant and interesting to read, but the book also harbours some old-fashioned ideals that are a little abrasive in supposedly contemporary characters.
There is an underlying suggestion about women’s place, that domesticity and, in particular, an ability to cook are desirable and admirable qualities, and that women who don’t conform to this are somehow inferior.
It is more than believable that a 1920s nursemaid would have to face that way of thinking, but it creeps in to Grania’s story too, and made me sigh out loud on more than one occasion.
The modern-day story lets this book down in a lot of ways. The will-they-won’t-they subplot between Grania and her American boyfriend, Matt, could have been from a different book altogether.
In the second half of the book, the story takes some spectacular (but not unpredictable) turns that can’t help but leave you rolling your eyes. I think in television it’s called ‘jumping the shark’.
But for every flaw in this book, there is something to be praised. The various plots and characters are woven seamlessly in to one story, and even though it’s incredibly complicated I don’t think anyone could be confused about who is who (there is actually a family tree printed somewhere in the middle so you can work it out if you get lost!).
The theme of family is tackled quite beautifully across all the stories, and in situations where adoption occurs, the chosen family is shown to be just as strong as blood in its bonds.
It is quite remarkable to think that Riley managed to plot such a complex tale using a dictaphone as she wandered around her house (a method she adopted after RSI left her unable to type or write out her work). The flitting back and forth between present and past seems to work well for her, and it is an structure that I expect to see from her again.
Riley has found her style, and for that reason if you liked Hothouse Flower it’s difficult to imagine that you wouldn’t like The Girl on the Cliff, and vice versa. It may seem formulaic, but on the other hand Riley is not afraid to place characters in an exotic location in a long forgotten era.
There are almost infinite combinations of time and landscape left for her to explore, and when her next novel comes out I’ll certainly be interested to find out when and where she has decided to spin a yarn this time.
Recommended for: People who are looking for current writers and modern stories, but enjoy classic romantic literature. This is a good bedtime book.