Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Florrie Buckley is an orphan, living on the wind-blasted moors of Cornwall. It's a hard existence but Florrie is content; she runs wild in the mysterious landscape. She thinks her destiny is set in stone. But when Florrie is fifteen, she inherits a never-imagined secret. She is related to a wealthy and notorious London family, the Graces. Overnight, Florrie's life changes and she moves from country to city, from poverty to wealth. Cut off from everyone she has ever known, Florrie struggles to learn the rules of this strange new world. And then she must try to fathom her destructive pull towards the enigmatic and troubled Turlington Grace, a man with many dark secrets of his own.
Last year Tracy Rees published her debut novel, the absolutely incredible Amy Snow which was the winner of the Richard and Judy search for a bestseller competition. With such high profile names attached to a book you might be tempted to say sure that was going to sell well anyway and get plenty of attention (which it did) but regardless of any endorsements Tracy’s first read would have been successful anyway as it was a brilliant piece of storytelling hooking you in from the first page until the very last. I remember writing in my review for that book that the author had lots of potential and that Amy Snow was only a teaser of what was to come and with this new book Florence Grace for me the author has confirmed the above statement. The comparisons to my favourite authors Lucinda Riley and Dinah Jefferies, both authors whom if you haven’t read before should definitely be on your radar, are not mentioned for the sake of it they are easily justifiable.
Again like last year’s book the cover for Florence Grace is perfect for the genre and evokes a haunting atmosphere of a girl roaming the moors of Cornwall at one with nature and the surrounding land as she contemplates her future and all that has passed. What follows is a story of transformation and discovery and above all else courage and sheer determination. The reader is taken from the brooding moors of Cornwall to the bustling crowded streets of London and for Florrie Buckley a new name, family and life await. She jumps from poverty to wealth but is that what she really wants or needs? Will this new dramatic world be everything it is cracked up to be or will it prove too much for the country girl so in tune to the landscape around her? Dark secrets are about to be exposed which will test the inner strength possessed by Florence and reading of her journey proved to be exhilarating and intriguing and certainly moved Tracy Rees into my top five favourite authors which is a spot difficult to reach as I can be a harsh judge.
The landscape plays a huge role in this novel and though it may be a cliché to say it, it does almost become a character in itself. Young Florrie Buckley is at one with the moors, the bog, mud, sea mists and the countryside surrounding the tiny hamlet of Braggenstones. Having lost her mother at birth she was raised by her Nan and father and allowed to roam free with her friends Hesta and Stephen. Times were tough in the isolated rural village (if you could even call a tiny cluster of cottages a village) but the people did their best with the land and always worked together. Tragedy seems to follow Florrie around as her father dies and it is just herself and Nan left. Again she turns to what she knows best the wild, craggy moors ‘I had been walking the moors all my life. They had been my refuge through every trial and tragedy’. Florrie’s affinity with the land is evident from the beginning ‘The moors were my soul home, the place I could never be lost’. The wise woman Old Rilla encourages this side of Florrie and teaches her all manner of healing methods using natural resources. Old Rilla is a source of comfort and support to Florrie along with Lacey Spencer who offers lessons to children from her front room. These two women see something in Florrie and wish to nurture it. When Florrie is asked to serve at a party in Truro she meets the other side of the coin to everything she has known the rich and powerful people so vastly different from everything she has ever experienced. There a brief chance meeting with Turlington Grace sparks a feeling/premonition in Florrie. Yes there is a romantic spark but this is something else and her intuition has never left her down before. Then at aged 15 everything changes for Florrie with the death of her Nan and what she had been told all her life is turned on its head as what should have been revealed many years ago finally comes to light. Florrie is actually Florence and related to a wealthy London family and her second name just happens to be Grace. What follows is a story of a girl taken from the world she is so connected to and transported to a life of rituals and rules and conventions which for such a free spirited girl it will prove to be challenging to acclimatise to.
Tracy Rees did a magnificent job of setting the scene for the overall plot, some may think too much time was devoted to Florrie’s early life but I felt it was perfect as we needed to fully understand her background and childhood and the deeply held connection to the people and landscape around her. It also served to show the stark contrast between her old life in the country and the strange yet exciting times that Florence would experience in London. Whilst Cornwall might have been calm and tranquil, London is the complete opposite and a place of wonder for Florence. Yet the house and the relations she finds herself living with seem to be dark and troubled ‘I knew for a certainty that I was never going to be happy in that house’.
There are numerous characters to get to know and to be honest none of them especially appealed to me apart from Sanderson and Calantha as I had such sympathy and understanding for Florence it may well have clouded my judgement of others. Hawker is Florrie’s grandfather who seems offhand and always out to secure the Grace family future, Aunt Dinah with her daughters Judith and Annis treats Florence with sheer abhorrence and more or less views her as an intruder to her cushy life she presumed she had all secure. The manner in which attempts to show Florence the new customs, rituals and ways of speaking was disheartening to read of so I can only imagine how Florence herself felt. Sanderson, brother of Turlington, seemed the most sympathetic to the situation Florence found herself in but he was a man and men at the time had their own role and he couldn’t overrule the way in which Aunt Dinah was forcing the life of the upper class on the free spirited Florence who until this point in time had roamed free to her hearts content. Calantha was a beautiful young girl living in the Grace household but treated like a pariah. Yes she may have been slightly different but her character was written with such compassion that she almost became a kindred spirit to Florence.
Florence feels confined in all senses of the word - the house is like a prison, the freedom of the moors is but a distant memory as Aunt Dinah enforces her way of life upon a girl who should be allowed to be herself. ‘She is a danger to our family, she will tear us apart, mark my words. She has been tainted and it can never be undone’. I felt such sympathy for Florence at the sheer hatred emanating from Aunt Dinah, she was up against a force who wanted nothing but her downfall but she had to make the best of the situation as she could not return to Cornwall. This is where Florence’s strength of character shone through and against all the unkindness shown to her she tries her utmost to make the best of a bad situation and through this she grows in many ways.
In the blurb Turlington Grace was described as enigmatic and to all intents and purposes he was that. He was confrontational yet kept things hidden and seemed to have a connection with Florence for reasons apart from a hint of romance ’Like him, I was set outside the mould not only here but in Cornwall too I had been different’. They appear to be kindred spirits for reasons that became apparent later on but on the other hand I felt Turlington was extremely selfish. He was the one who could have been there for Florence when she needed someone but through circumstances of his own creation he dips in and out of the Grace home in London. As he made brief appearances powerful although they may have been I felt he flitted in and out of the story too much and therefore the reader barely got to know him and understand his way of thinking. We could see how Florence felt about everything but I was never fully convinced of his intentions.
Often the second book following a hugely successful debut can prove to be difficult to write considering the pressure heaped upon the author. It can also mean the reader is left waiting endlessly for the book to be released. Well on both counts Tracy Rees hasn’t fallen foul of these statements, Florence Grace is just as good as Amy Snow even if my only slight issue was that it fell a little bit flat in the middle before picking up the pace and plot to provide an ending that leaves one full of hope and happiness. I loved how the conclusion didn’t go with convention and that everything didn’t follow the path one might have expected. There were twists and turns that kept my interest which was needed after elements of the middle section became slightly repetitive. Some may think did Tracy Rees rush to get this second book out to capitalise on the success of book one? I don’t think this is the case, Tracy clearly has a deep love for writing and just wants to share her characters and stories with as many people as possible.
Florence Grace makes you feel like you have travelled back in time and that you believe Florence really could have existed all those years ago. The story of her transition and growth is compelling and intriguing and she is a character that has you rooting for a positive outcome. Florence Grace is definitely recommended for lovers of historical fiction like myself but also through Quercus’ Summer Reading Challenge I’m sure Tracy Rees will find plenty of new readers who will be equally enthralled as I was.
Many thanks to Quercus books for my copy of Florence Grace via NetGalley which is also the second book I’m reviewing for #QuercusSummer and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.