Reviewed by Emma Crowley
It is said that anyone who comes to stay at 'Pandora' for the first time will fall in love...
It has been twenty-four years since a young Helena spent a magical holiday in Cyprus, where she fell in love for the first time. When the now crumbling house, 'Pandora', is left to her by her godfather, she returns to spend the summer there with her family.
Yet Helena knows that the idyllic beauty of Pandora masks a web of secrets she has kept from William, her husband, and Alex, her son. At the difficult age of thirteen, Alex is torn between protecting his beloved mother, and growing up. And equally, he is desperate to learn the truth about his real father. . .
When Helena meets her childhood sweetheart by chance, a chain of events is set in motion that threatens to make her past and present collide. Both Helena and Alex know that life will never be the same, once Pandora's secrets have been revealed.
Lucinda Riley is my absolute favourite author alongside Lesley Pearse. I have loved everything she has written since her first book Hothouse Flower and each subsequent book has been brilliant and has showcased the incredible writing talents that Lucinda has. I've never reviewed a book by Lucinda before I don't know why but given the opportunity to do so I jumped at the chance with this new book The Olive Tree. Lucinda is in the middle of writing her Seven Sisters series so for a second book within a year to be published is a real treat for her legions of fans and keeps us going while we await publication of The Shadow Sister in November.
This is the first time that Lucinda has stepped away from books with a big sweeping historical background or one hundred year time span (I adore these kind of books even more so when they are written by Lucinda) and instead focuses on a family holiday over one hot, long summer in Cyprus staying in a house our main female protagonist Helena has inherited from her godfather Angus. Lucinda mentions in the acknowledgements that this was a book that she first started writing 10 years ago while on a family holiday and then she left it but last year discovered a draft in her desk and decided to rework it. This was a brave step for the author to do as she has become synonymous for her historical fiction and the current series she is working on. When I pick up a book by Lucinda Riley I normally know what to expect and get swept away in the world and the cast of characters she has created. I'll be honest I was apprehensive that I wouldn't enjoy this book as much simply because it didn't have the historical element and I wasn't sure how she would approach a more modern story. Admittedly it took me a while to settle into the story as I kept looking for the flashbacks to the past entwined with solving the mystery in the present but then I began to ease into the story and really this is just as good as anything Lucinda has written before.
The Olive Tree is quite hefty at nearly 600 pages but I did read it in two sittings so absorbed did I become in the story. For once I really did feel as if I was transported from windswept Ireland to the warm, humid, languid, restless days on the island of Cyprus in the house called Pandora clearly named after the Greek legend. As Helena and her family arrive for their extended summer holiday will Pandora's box open and spill forth secrets that Helena has kept to herself for so many years for fear of causing so much upset and upheaval or will the box remain closed? Well it wouldn't have been much of a story if the lies and secrets didn't come to the surface but it is the manner in which they do so that makes this book a deeply satisfying read. Tantalising hints are dropped throughout, nothing is ever rushed as Lucinda gives her readers an overall view of the holiday and background to the characters and thoughts and actions. There are numerous characters to introduce and initially I felt there were too many for the reader to focus on but really they soon all become important players with something to add no matter how major or minor.
The book opens in the present day as Alex returns to the Pandora after last visiting over ten years ago for what proved to be an eventful life changing summer. Alex is alone at the house but more people are due to arrive. The author sets up the story nicely describing the house itself and the surrounding countryside and gives us time to get to know Alex. You feel another momentous event is about to happen but you have no idea as to what it could be. As Alex spends the night alone he retreats to the broom cupboard sized room that he called his own during that fateful summer and here he discovers the diary he kept during that time. The diary may have languished on a shelf for ten years but once Alex starts reading it is like the years slipped away and he is back there present in that fateful summer when revelations changed everything he believed to be true.
Lucinda then takes us back to the summer of 2006 as Helena and her family arrive on the island. Helena had spent some time there with her godfather Angus but has not returned for many years. She begins to wonder despite inheriting the house is there a reason why now at this point in time everyone is gathering? Will things she has kept to herself come to light, things that will devastate those who hear what Helena has kept close to her chest for so many years? Helena was a likeable character and I thought she was a wonderful mother to Alex (who is on the cusp of becoming a teenager) as well as her two children by husband William – Immy (5) and Fred (3). She did everything for everybody else, no didn't ever enter into her vocabulary and she welcomed the many visitors to the house maybe not with open arms but with some acceptance. I wouldn't have wanted my husbands best friends family foisted on me when I am on my own personal family holiday. Sacha, Julie and their children Rupes and Viola weren't the nicest of people and I wondered were they token characters we were supposed to dislike from the outset but as I have mentioned every character needs to be kept an eye on. Even though outside appearances suggest Helena is happy with her life there was something eating away at her on the inside and the reappearance of old flame Alexis sets her mind racing even more. I have to say that Immy simply stole every scene she was in and even though she was five she had a wise yet very funny side to her that had me chuckling away to myself throughout the book. I couldn't wait to read what she would come out with next. As for Alex he seemed mysterious and I wondered what he could be hiding?
What really sets this book apart from anything else out there at the moment is Alex's diary. Entries are slotted throughout almost after each chapter and my god the writing was just amazing. I even got my phone out and took a picture of a few lines that really struck a chord with me. Even though Alex is only just entering the teenage stage of his life he has been assessed as gifted and it comes across in the writing. Everything he was witnessing, observing, feeling and partaking in was written down in such a sharp way. We really got inside Alex's head and understood his views on everything that was unfolding and it gave a really different slant to the entire story. One of the main questions Alex has amongst all the confusion flashing through his brain not to mention having to deal with the intolerable Rupes or the fact that his step sister Chloe is making an appearance is the fact that he has never known who is biological dad is. Alex feels he is inching ever closer to the truth and now is the time when Helena can't keep things secret any more. I thought this was going to be all run of the mill and turn into a bit of a cliché but Lucinda proved she is the master of suspense and twists and turns and not revealing things immediately as I thought I had it all sussed out early on. I was afraid the reveal would come to soon and where could the book possibly go then but no I couldn't have been more wrong and the truth left me open mouthed but then annoyed at the repercussions for others. I have to say Alex was my favourite character and usually it's more the female characters I identify more easily with so it's testament to the fantastic, skilful writing of the author that she made me feel every bit of Alex's pain and the unjustness of what he was discovering.
I was worried The Olive Tree was simply going to be the usual story of what happens when a family goes on holiday similar to that of books I had read last year by Fanny Blake and Catherine Alliott. They were only OK reads but Lucinda Riley wrote a book with such depth and substance tackling so many issues and dealing with them in a sensitive yet enthralling way so much so that towards the end I couldn't turn the pages quick enough in order to discover the final outcome. This story goes beyond a family holiday merely it is the trigger which brings characters and situations together and presents them with no other option but to confront what they have been internally battling and somehow deal with the repercussions. Past and present do collide but at some stage this needed to happen as keeping things locked away inside will just cause more hurt and pain for all involved.
This book proved to be a real treasure and I took so much from it and I am glad that I did as I would have been bitterly disappointed if this didn't live up to the remarkable back catalogue of books that I have always loved and which made Lucinda a favourite author of mine. Lucinda had already proven she can do historical fiction to an excellent standard but now she has shown more contemporary novels are quite clearly her forte too. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend The Olive Tree to buy and read this summer. Roll on November for the next installment in the Seven Sisters as I just can't get enough of the writing from Lucinda.
Many thanks to Katie James at Pan Macmillan for sending me a copy of The Olive Tree to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.