When Frances Irvine's father dies suddenly, the ground dissolves beneath her feet. She learns that her family's life of prestige was built on airs and speculation, that in truth she has nothing and is now left, in the world of 1880s English society, with two equally unpalatable choices: enter a life of servitude or immigrate to South Africa to marry a man she doesn't love. Frances chooses the latter, but on the voyage she meets a beguiling stranger who further complicates her predicament. Will she choose passion or practicality? And more important, does she really have the options she thinks she does? Debut author Jennifer McVeigh has created a fully realized sensory tour of 19th-century South Africa: You feel the grit of each dust storm, taste the mealie Frances chokes down, hear the cicadas scraping through the heat-parched air along with Frances' plaintive piano playing. Against this desperate backdrop is an exploration of the vicissitudes of passion, the brutality of imperialism and the diamond trade's deeply racist beginnings. Though the book is a page-turner of the "who will she choose?" variety right until the end, the most fascinating strand of the story is Frances, and her struggles to come to terms with her new ideas about society, marriage, family and love. "What does a person become when they have nothing left to hold on to?" she asks herself in the beginning of the book, and by the end she knows: herself.
— Amy Shearn
Printed from Oprah.com on Saturday, December 7, 2013