Written by Jane Corry — Two people. One not yet in her teens. Another, recently married, trying to succeed at being both a wife and a lawyer. Carla Cavoletti is a solitary little girl, living alone with her mother in their London flat, and disliked at school for her Italian looks. Spitefully, she is called Spagoletti by her cruel classmates. Lily Macdonald has spent her life feeling too tall, too plump and too dowdy, but her intelligence and work ethic mean that she is making her way in the legal profession.
Carla’s life is unsettled, to say the least. Her mother, beautiful as she is, has a low-paid job, but has a friend known as Larry. Larry’s visits always mean an early bedtime for Carla, but the flat is small and its walls are thin, and the impressionable but very smart little girl soon learns that for secrets to remain secrets, a price has to be paid.
Lily and her husband Ed – a designer who longs to be a successful artist – find their lives entwining with that of the lonely schoolgirl as they play the role of surrogate parents. Ed becomes entranced by her beauty, and takes every opportunity to make pictures of her. When Lily takes on Joe Thomas’ case – a convicted murderer who is seeking a retrial – life at home becomes increasingly fraught as it occupies more and more of her time.
The narrative is split between two distinct time frames. The first opens with the events surrounding Lily and Ed’s first meeting with Carla, and closes with the dramatic outcome of Thomas’ re-trial. We then move forward 15 years. Lily is now highly sought-after and has become a partner in her firm, while Ed has made a small fortune by selling just one painting – that of young Carla.
This is quite a long book, but author Jane Corry makes use of the available space to slowly but surely built up a sense of unease and mistrust between the main characters. As we reach the present day we learn that Ed and Lily have a son, Tom, but he has Asperger’s syndrome. We also become aware that Lily has a deep guilt complex about the apparent suicide of her brother, Daniel, many years earlier. Just as Ed’s star in the art world shows signs of becoming tarnished, he receives a surprise visitor at his gallery. It is none other than Carla. Now a beautiful woman, she has returned from Italy seeking to use her law degree to become a qualified English solicitor. That ambition, we soon learn, is not her only motive for coming to London.
By now, we also know the true identity of the man who Carla knew only as Larry – her mother’s admirer. When the mysterious Joe Thomas – whose retrial made Lily Macdonald a household name – reappears, it is as if a highly volatile solvent has been poured onto smouldering coals. There is a dramatic betrayal, a violent death, and we also learn the true reason behind Lily’s obsession with her late brother.
This is a very cleverly written book, and Corry has created enough flawed characters to keep even Thomas Hardy fans happy. We even have a thoroughly decent person – just the one – who keeps sane and sensible amidst the general atmosphere of chaos. To stick with the fire metaphor, the book is something of a slow burn, but there are twists, turns and upsets a-plenty, not to mention heartaches, in the final third of the story. Aside from her description of adults behaving badly, Corry also provides a convincing and sympathetic portrait of both a youngster with Asperger’s syndrome and the adults whose patience, love and forbearance are so vital if the child is to lead a happy life.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars