After the death of her beloved nan, fifteen-year-old Florrie is forced to leave Cornwall for London where her deceased mother’s family, the Graces, are prominent members of society. Having been poor all her life, Florrie is ill-equipped for her new role, however she is subjected to an intense course of refinement designed to turn her into a lady.
As Florence Grace, Florrie has to leave behind everything she has ever known, however not everyone in the Grace household wants her there and they are not afraid to show it. As Florence struggles to conform, she is delighted by the arrival of her older cousin, Turlington Grace, the black sheep of the family, with whom she falls in love. But the course of true love never did run smoothly, and Florence is heartbroken when Turlington does a bunk with a handful of the family jewels.
Florence’s grandfather, the formidable Hawker Grace, is determined to rebuild the family’s fortunes through a series of prosperous marriages and Florence soon finds herself engaged to a man she will never love. However, the return of Turlington and the death of Hawker changes everything, and the Graces soon find themselves living in impoverished circumstances. Shocked and dazed, the Graces flounder in their new reality so it is up to Florence to pull them all together.
Florence Grace is the second novel by Tracy Rees who is mostly known for winning the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller Competition in 2015 with her debut novel Amy Snow. While I enjoyed Amy Snow for the most part, it wasn’t exactly a must read for me but I was curious to see how Rees did with her second book. However, Florence Grace is a rather mixed bag as we follow Florrie through her transition from being a wild Cornish lass to a refined society lady and back again. Florrie’s parents are both dead and she lives with her nan while a neighbour, Old Rilla, teaches her about herbs which grow wild in her garden. Florrie seems to have the gift of insight but it is never clearly defined and is absent from large chunks of the book, however she also seems to have the ability to see loved ones just after their passing.
When Florrie is fourteen, she learns her mother came from a prominent family who disowned her for marrying beneath her station and her dying nan has arranged for the Graces to take Florrie in after her death. Devastated at the prospect of losing her nan and being forced to leave Cornwall, Florrie takes the news badly but when her nan dies a few weeks later, she dutifully travels to London to meet her new family. The Graces, once a dominant family in London society, have dwindled over the years and Florrie’s grandfather, Hawker, is determined to regain their status by increasing their numbers through advantageous marriages. After her arrival, Florrie is told her she is now to be called Florence Grace and she begins taking instruction on how to conduct herself as a lady.
It takes a while to tame Florence’s wild nature and there are a lot of rebellious episodes which result in the girl being locked for days in an attic closet, however it is her spiritedness that make Florence the most appealing. The other members of the Grace family are a diverse bunch but they are all cowed by fears of being disinherited so is refreshing when the brooding Turlington appears bringing chaos in his wake. Florence is immediately drawn to Turlington as he likes her for herself but Turlington is a troubled man fuelled by his alcoholism. As Florence grows closer to Turlington, he becomes increasingly despondent and soon disappears with some stolen jewellery.
At this point, the novel skips ahead a couple of years and we meet a more sophisticated version of Florence but her longing to return to Cornwall is as strong as ever. Florence is also engaged to a man who has not featured in the book yet but he is so insignificant he barely registers on our consciousness when he does appear. Of course, Florence’s heart belongs to Turlington and he predictably shows up just as Florence seems to have come around to the idea of marriage.
Florence and Turlington’s affair becomes physical but they hide their relationship from everyone so as not to upset the family but it is clear Turlington’s motives are less than honourable. Any notions Florence is going to fall pregnant are nipped in the bud when we are reminded Florence is a dab hand with herbs although she doesn’t go into any explanation about what she is using to prevent pregnancy. When Florence finally does the honourable thing and breaks her engagement, she is unwittingly ending her relationship with Turlington at the same time as she discovers he’s been drinking again. Feeling unworthy of her love, Turlington disappears once more and Florence is resolved to the idea they are better apart. We barely get the chance to know Turlington as a character because his appearances are few and far between so the whole romance seemed rather pointless from beginning to end.
Nothing much seems to happen in this book since everyone is too afraid to say or do anything controversial, the best part of the whole thing is when Hawker dies and they discover he’s disinherited the lot of them anyway. Unable to cope with their change in circumstances, Florence comes into her own here when she takes charge and begins to steer them in the right direction without bearing the slightest grudge against those who abused her in the past. Florence is no stranger to poverty, so the family become reliant on her and she instils new purpose in them.
There’s one more surprise for Florence though and that’s hearing her grandfather did make some provision for her future and she finally has enough money to return to Cornwall. Home again, Florence reconnects with Old Rilla and it’s like she’s never been away. And if you are waiting for a contrite and reformed Turlington to appear out of the blue, you’ll be disappointed as Old Rilla reveals Florence will find love when she least expects it. In the epilogue, Florence meets a stranger and senses they are destined to be together. If only those instincts had been so reliable in London.
The pace of this book is very slow to the point I almost gave up half way through because nothing seemed to be happening but it didn’t really work as a character driven novel either as Florence fails to be her true self for most of it. Since she was so rebellious when she first arrived in London, I was disappointed when the book jumped ahead in time to find Florence so compliant to the point she was agreeable enough to marry a man she barely knew. As Florence has never been motivated by the idea of an inheritance, I never really got why she became so meek. The most interesting parts of the book were not exploited fully enough as I would have loved to have seen the Graces struggling more with their loss of fortune as this is when Florence finally climbs out of their shadow and gets to be herself again.