Could one rare plant hold the key to a thousand riches?
It’s the summer of 1822 and Edinburgh is abuzz with rumours of King George IV’s impending visit. In botanical circles, however, a different kind of excitement has gripped the city. In the newly-installed Botanic Garden, the Agave Americana plant looks set to flower – an event that only occurs once every few decades.
When newly widowed Elizabeth arrives in Edinburgh to live with her late husband’s aunt Clementina, she’s determined to put her unhappy past in London behind her. As she settles into her new home, she becomes fascinated by the beautiful Botanic Garden which borders the grand house and offers her services as an artist to record the rare plant’s impending bloom. In this pursuit, she meets Belle Brodie, a vivacious young woman with a passion for botany and the lucrative, dark art of perfume creation.
Belle is determined to keep both her real identity and the reason for her interest the Garden secret from her new friend. But as Elizabeth and Belle are about to discover, secrets don’t last long in this Enlightenment city . . .
And when they are revealed, they can carry the greatest of consequences.
My thoughts: this was a marvellous, marvellous book. I loved it, the characters, the story, the whole thing basically.
I love books that bring women to the forefront in historic settings – just like this one, and a mix of ladies of leisure and working class lasses too. From Elizabeth – a widow dependant on her late husband’s cousin, Belle Brodie, courtesan and perfumier, Mhari McDonald, whiskey distiller, and so many cooks, housekeepers, maids, mothers, daughters, Ladies (with a capital L) and the denizens of Edinburgh.
There are some men too, but apart from McNab, Walter Scott, Johann, and Reverend Brunton, they’re not very interesting and only really incidental to things. They don’t carry the story, but the women do, their relationships to each other, their courage and determination to get ahead – on their own terms, is at the heart of it. As is a rare plant that only flowers every thirty years or so.
Plants and their properties bring Belle and Elizabeth together, one intrigued by the oils and scents that can be extracted, and the other as an illustrator – pre-cameras, skilled artists produced stunning sketches of plants and several of them were women.
The story is delightful, full of ups and downs, the characters feel real and are tremendously entertaining – Sir Walter Scott is as charming and as excitable as you might imagine, but Lady Clementina Rocheid is my favourite. A grand dame, raised in Germany, who mostly lives in the past, slowly getting confused but still full of life and passionate about clothes and parties and food. I loved her, a real delight. The perfect person to show Elizabeth some light and joy. Belle and Elizabeth are both entirely fictional but I loved them too, their instant friendship, a fragile bond, but heartwarming. I was rooting for them to stay in each other’s lives forever. Because friendship is so vital. I imagine them as older ladies, reminiscing in front of the fire, giggling as whispering “do you remember the summer when they moved the trees and the King came to town?”
*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in the blog tour but all opinions remain my own.