New York City, 2009: Julia Conley, “another casualty of the subprime crisis,” finds herself unemployed and restless. The letter from a British law firm couldn’t have come at a better time. “Someone’s left me a house….In England.” Despite never having met her Great Aunt Regina, Julia has inherited her stately home, Herne Hill, just outside London. Since she lost her mother in a car accident when she was a young girl, she hasn’t been back to the UK. With a slight nudge from her father and stepmother, Julia decides that perhaps it’s worth going over, seeing the house, and at least getting it into good shape before putting it on the market.
Thankfully, upon her arrival, her cousin, Natalie, and her friend, Nicholas, a young antiquities dealer, help her navigate the morass of material and furniture Aunt Regina’s house contains. Trying to keep her painful childhood memories at bay becomes easier once Julia discovers a Pre-Raphaelite painting hidden away in an old wardrobe.
"Brimming with sumptuous detail and slow-burning suspense, THAT SUMMER, in addition to being a fun and inviting read, will fill that 'Downton Abbey' void felt by many."
Herne Hill, England, 1839: Parson’s daughter, Imogen, embarks on a new chapter of her life when she marries the older Arthur Grantham, leaving behind her small village life. But as soon as she arrives at her husband’s estate, Herne Hill, it’s clear that it might take some time to acclimate. Imogen knew that her new husband was a widower with a young daughter. She had forgotten that he kept his former sister-in-law, Miss Cooper, in his employ to run his household. While not as menacing as DuMaurier’s Miss Danvers, Miss Cooper is not exactly a welcoming presence.
At first, Imogen tries to adapt quickly and become the best wife she can be. But despite her best efforts, her husband’s affections cool, and she soon finds herself in a loveless marriage. She “despised herself for her own weakness, especially now that she knew Arthur for what he was, not the prince of her imaginings but a limited man of limited imagination and small ambition.”
When Arthur invites painters to inspect his trove of medieval treasures, one member of the crew, Gavin Thorne, is commissioned by Arthur to paint Imogen’s portrait. Throughout many afternoons of posing, Imogen and Gavin talk endlessly about life and art: “He found beauty everywhere and, finding it, showed it to her, even in the bruised side of a fallen apple, or a path trodden by dusty feet. When she was with him, colors were brighter, scents sharper; she felt as though she had awakened after a long sleep into a world she was learning again, piece by piece.” Finally, she has someone with whom she can talk, share dreams, and who understands her. But this new alliance threatens to ruin Imogen’s entire life.
These two lives converge in the present when Julia discovers the real story behind the mysterious painting. Fans of Lauren Willig’s previous novel, THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, will be delighted as the author intertwines the dual narratives of women in different time periods, bound by a decades-old secret. Brimming with sumptuous detail and slow-burning suspense, THAT SUMMER, in addition to being a fun and inviting read, will fill that “Downton Abbey” void felt by many. Fans of Tracy Chevalier, M.L. Stedman and Sarah Dunant will revel in this resplendent tale of family secrets too long kept.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on June 6, 2014