First Lines: My father was a plant hunter–an adventurer–and I saw little of him my first fourteen years, even less the next two, but after I turned seventeen he became my whole world.
I had this book on my shelf for a long time–like 1.5 months–before I read it. I know that I love Sharon Biggs Waller’s storytelling ability, but sometimes I’m touchy about history that I know nothing about. (The Girl From Everywhere was one of these books, and it didn’t go over well with me. I was wary this time around.)
Elodie is the responsible one in her family. While her father is away on his adventures in China, it’s Elodie’s job to make sure the family doesn’t fall apart. The eldest of 9 sisters, she’s always been thrust into that role whether she wanted it or not. Then disaster strikes: her father backs out of a deal to collect samples of a rare and expensive orchid. If he doesn’t go back to get it, he will end up in debtor’s prison and Elodie’s family will be sent to the poorhouse. Not wanting to see her family destroyed, Elodie convinces her father to go to China–and she defies the rules of society and goes with him. The adventure seems romantic–far off places, a quest for the orchids, the dangerous journey. But the danger is far more real than Elodie could have believed. And when it’s time to go back home, can she go back to being the Elodie she was before?
As I mentioned, I know practically nothing about this time period in this setting. We’re talking 1861 China. I can tell you about that time in America (the Civil War) or in England (the era of Queen Victoria), but China? I’ve got nothing.
Waller did a great job of bringing the setting to life. Not only did I get the obvious details I was looking for, like what China was like at this time or what England’s rules of propriety were, but I also got details I didn’t even know I wanted. Like what life was like on a ship at this time. It wasn’t quite what I expected at times. Or what the hubbub was about these orchids. (Victorians…you’ve got to love how their minds were always in the gutter but they pretended it wasn’t.)
Elodie is a strong character, the kind that wouldn’t have fit in with most of society at the time. And while that seems sincere and I’m sure it totally happened, it also feels just a smidgen unrealistic…but maybe that has to do with how I’ve been reading a lot of historical fictions lately with women who break the rules?? Maybe I’m getting burnt out? Who knows. Not that I’m bashing strong women because I’m not. But the kinds of backtalk she has for her parents are the kinds of things I could see being an issue with parents now, let alone in the Victorian era.
I’ll admit that the beginning of the story was a bit dull. There’s a lot we have to set up, like why these orchids are important, what the family dynamic is, what life is like where Elodie lives, etc. It just takes a long time to really get to the exciting stuff. But once the adventure begins, there are a lot of great characters to catch your attention. I’m partial to Alex and Ching Lan.
And the history was interesting. Sometimes, it’s incredibly to sit back and look at how Europeans (especially during colonialism) couldn’t figure out why other cultures that were being eradicated, destroyed, and conquered were upset with them.
It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but it was certainly enough to keep me interested.