In this dual timeline story, Vivian Schuyler is a budding newspaper woman in 1960s New York City. She receives a mysterious locked valise in the mail and discovers the belongings of a great aunt she has never known, Violet Grant. An aspiring physicist in the days of Einstein, Rutherford, and Planck, Violet was an anomaly – a young, attractive, smart female in the early 20th century who will do anything to study the atom. Born to a wealthy family, Violet escapes for Oxford, England, where she lobbies for a position at the Devonshire Institute. There, she meets the eminent physicist Dr. Walter Grant, who is decades older than herself. Confusing professional admiration for love and Dr. Grant’s twisted fetishes for devotion, Violet becomes his lover. When she tells him she’s pregnant and refuses an abortion, Grant somewhat reluctantly marries her, calling their union a “true merger of equals”. They take up new positions in Berlin, just before the outbreak of WWI. Violet soon discovers, however, that their equal union is anything but. Although she is allowed her academic pursuits, Grant avidly seduces other women, oftentimes in the salons and libraries of party hosts. When Violet meets a former pupil of Grant’s, Lionel, and he promises to save her from the humiliation and cruelty that comes with being Grant’s wife, Violet jumps at the chance. But when Grant turns up murdered, Violet and Lionel must flee Berlin, right as war is declared.
Vivian decides to do everything she can to unearth Violet’s true story. What really happened to her? Is she still alive and if so, where? No one knows what happened to Violet after her flee from Berlin, and Vivian’s family is in no hurry to dig up the past. History says that Violet killed Grant and fled with her lover, but there is no direct evidence to support that, and a diary found in the valise suggests Grant was a lascivious brute with numerous lovers and intrigues who had just as much motive. But if Violet didn’t kill Grant, who did and why? Can Vivian find out, now 50-some years later?
The dual time line is superbly done. Although Vivian is by far the more engaging of the two characters – sassy, audacious, daring, and simply radiant – Violet is also drawn clearly, with real insight into the difficulties associated with the path she carves out for herself. Her sense of betrayal, grief, fear, and acceptance is deeply felt. There is also much more to this story than meets the eye, and that’s a real treat. (Grant’s murder is not as easily solved as one might think.) Ms. Williams deftly throws in plenty of twists, even when the reader believes a plot point is already determined. Some tangents late in the book can be overlooked if nothing else than for more time with the sparkling Vivian, whose dialogue is truly memorable. Highly recommended.
Another book by Ms. Williams reviewed here is “The Forgotten Room“.
Amazon link is here.