In the aftermath of the First World War, Emmeline Vane is struggling to come to terms with the losses she has suffered and has become too reliant on sedatives to get her through the day.
After falling apart at a social gathering, Emmeline’s uncle decides his niece needs a rest and he takes her to France where Emmeline discovers he’s actually planning on putting her into an asylum. Horrified by the prospect, Emmeline manages to gather her wits together enough to escape and she ends up in Cerbére, a small village on the border between France and Spain, where she is taken in by Clémence who runs the town’s cafe.
Emmeline, now known as Emilie, earns her keep by helping in the cafe and learning how to cook the sumptuous Mediterranean dishes native to the region. Clémence knows Emilie is running away from something, but she eventually accepts the young woman into her family, particularly when Emilie falls in love with Clémence’s son, Aaro.
Fifty years later, Emmeline has long been presumed dead by her family, however they need proof so they can sell the abandoned estate she inherited. Bill Perch, a young trainee solicitor, is given the job of piecing together the events leading up to Emmeline’s disappearance and he eventually begins to feel a form bonding with the young woman. As Bill follows in Emmeline’s footsteps, he begins to realise how suffocating his life has become and he resents the expectations imposed on him by his parents and the girl he is to marry.
Where The Wild Cherries Grow is a fascinating account of how two people, from different time periods, both manage to escape a life set out for them by other people. In 1919, Emmeline is trapped by her position in society and is expected to make a good marriage because as a mere woman she cannot possibly be trusted to run the vast estate she has inherited. When Emmeline dares to rebel, she is considered mentally unbalanced and her uncle makes plans to solve the situation by having her committed. When Emmeline learns the horrible truth in Paris, she runs away from her uncle and she hides aboard a train heading south.
Alternating with Emmeline’s chapters, we are taken fifty years into the future where Bill Perch is tasked with the investigation into Emmeline’s disappearance as her family need proof of her death before they can sell her family estate. Bill seems to have the world at his feet as his prospects at the law firm are good and he is dating a girl he hopes to marry some day, however as Bill’s investigation brings him into contact with people outside of his social circle, his outlook begins to change and he yearns to break free. Since Bill fails to find any real evidence of Emmeline’s whereabouts, Bill’s boss orders him to drop the case but Bill has become so enchanted with Emmeline’s story, he can’t let it go. Walking away from his job to the consternation of his parents and girlfriend, Bill follows his heart and the clues he has managed to unearth to Cerbére.
I liked how Madeleine chose to have a female and a male protagonist because it is all too easy to see how women are trapped by expectations, especially in an a different era, but we sometimes forget that men have that problem too. In 1969, only two years after the summer of love, you’d expect Bill’s life to be easier but the expectations are still there and his parents have high hopes for him to succeed in his chosen career and to provide for the family he is expected to eventually have with his girlfriend. Bill has quietly accepted this, mainly because he hasn’t had the chance to experience anything else, but Emmeline’s journey shows him there is a bigger world out there if he is brave enough to seize his opportunities.
Bill and Emmeline’s journey to freedom is enhanced by the beautiful prose Laura Madeleine uses throughout. The whole world suddenly explodes in colour as Emmeline arrives in Cerbére and you can almost feel the heat of the sun on your skin as Madeleine describes the beauty of the region. There is also a lot of focus on the mouth-watering food cooked in Clémence’s cafe and Madeleine describes it all so well, your tastebuds practically explode with sheer joy. If this book was a film, you could easily imagine the earlier scenes in black and white and then the gradual move into colour as Emmeline and Bill begins to feel the freedom.