After her husband dies in a car accident, Louisa begins to realise she never really knew the man she married when she uncovers the extent of the debts he has been accumulating.
Believing Elliot had shares in a nearby cinnamon plantation, Louisa is shocked when she discovers he was actually visiting his eight-year-old son, Conor. The truth hits Louisa hard as her longing for a child has ended in bitter disappointment after a series of miscarriages and a traumatic stillbirth. Feeling betrayed, Louisa can’t even bring herself to look at the child but she finds herself drawn into life at Cinnamon Hills when she realises Conor’s mother is seriously ill and the boy is being cared for by his uncle Leo, the handsome owner of the plantation.
While Louisa is still coming to terms with all these revelations, she begins receiving threatening visits from men who claim to have been in business with Elliot and to whom he owes a great deal of money. Elliot’s last project before his death was the purchase of a derelict building which she plans to convert into an emporium selling high quality handmade goods. Having already given Elliot a large sum of money to cover the costs of the renovations, Louisa is dismayed when she realises it has virtually gone and nothing has been done. Determined to bring the project to fruition, Louisa uses the last of her own money to fund the refurbishment but when Elliot’s former partners become increasingly hostile, everything she holds dear is under threat.
The Sapphire Widow is set in Ceylon in the 1930s which is familiar territory for Jefferies since it was also her setting for her novel The Tea Planter’s Wife and a few of the characters from that book appear here as Louisa befriends Gwen Hooper. Of course, the danger of having two books in the same setting is repetition but Jefferies manages to avoid that trap by moving away from tea to incorporate other businesses in the country. Since Louisa is the daughter and wife of gem merchants, I was expecting more focus on the gem trade but the book is more concerned with the cinnamon industry.
As usual, Jefferies does an excellent job of bringing the place to life with its lush vegetation, humid heat and diverse smells. Since cinnamon is one of my favourite spices, it was interesting to hear how it was cultivated and the descriptions are so vivid, you could almost smell it the air. We don’t get a lot of information on Elliot’s cinnamon business other than it is doing so well there’s a real need for expansion, so it’s lucky Louisa has just met Leo who runs his own planation. While I love the historical settings of Jefferies books, they are let down by their predictability and the “isn’t that convenient” moments. When Louisa visits Cinnamon Hills for the first time, you know exactly what she is going to discover before she’s even gotten out of the car.
While Louisa is a likeable character, it’s hard to believe someone as intelligent as she is would be so blind to her husband’s nefarious activities and she deludes herself into thinking the problems in her marriage are down to her inability to give her husband a child. Elliot’s death shocks her into realising she misjudged his character badly and that her father was right about him all along. Louisa did genuinely love her husband so her grief is palpable to begin with, however as she learns more about what Elliot has been doing, she gets increasingly angry at him until the love is almost gone. It’s an important progression since Louisa becomes increasingly attracted to Leo over a short space of time and we need to understand why she can move on so quickly.
Since there is so much going on elsewhere, the emporium is shoved into the background somewhat and it only comes to the forefront when convenient. The threats Louisa is subjected to are forgotten about for large chunks of the book and it is only when she brings Conor to stay with her that you know something big is about to happen. The worst part for me was when it was all resolved “off page” because it makes you feel like you just got cheated out of the denouement.
I’m starting to think books tagged with the Richard and Judy Book Club Pick are cursed because I’ve been really disappointed with the last few I’ve read.