The Pearl Sister by Lucinda Riley

The Pearl Sister is the fourth book in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series based loosely on the mythology of the Pleiades (or ‘seven sisters’) star cluster. There will eventually be seven novels each telling the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious millionaire known as Pa Salt.

The girls, who are all from very different backgrounds and who grew up together in Switzerland on Pa Salt’s Lake Geneva estate, are named after the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but for some reason which has not yet been revealed only six girls were adopted rather than seven. Pa Salt dies at the beginning of the series, leaving each sister some clues to help them trace their real parents, if they wish to do so.

The books could be read in any order as they all work as standalones, with only a small amount of overlap. The first book in the series, The Seven Sisters, tells Maia’s story, the second, The Storm Sister, tells Ally’s, and the third, The Shadow Sister, concentrates on Star. This time it’s CeCe’s turn. CeCe and Star are nearly the same age, being adopted as babies just a few months apart, and have always had a very close relationship. In the previous novel we saw the shy, quiet Star stepping out from CeCe’s shadow to build a life of her own, while The Pearl Sister begins with CeCe feeling rejected and left behind as Star moves on.

Pa Salt has left CeCe the name of an Australian pioneer and a black and white photograph to point her on her way, so she sets off for Australia, stopping in Thailand for a few weeks first. Following a trail which she hopes will lead to her own birth family, CeCe makes some discoveries which help her to understand who she really is.

CeCe’s story is set in the modern day, but we also follow the story of another woman and this one takes place in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s 1906 and Kitty McBride has left her home in Edinburgh to travel to Australia as a lady’s companion. Here she meets the Mercer family, who own both a pearl business and a cattle station, and becomes entangled with twin brothers Drummond and Andrew Mercer. When it becomes obvious that both of them are hoping to marry Kitty, she will have a big decision to make. Her choice will affect not only her own life but the lives of future generations as well.

Having read most of Lucinda Riley’s novels now, I think she deals with multiple time periods very well, spending long enough in each one for us to become fully immersed in the story before switching to the other. I enjoyed both of the storylines, but Kitty’s was more dramatic, filled with plot twists and surprises (as well as one or two coincidences which I thought stretched things a bit too far, although that wasn’t a big problem). I loved reading about Kitty’s involvement in the pearl industry and about her friendship with another strong and courageous woman, her maid Camira. CeCe’s storyline kept me turning the pages too. There’s a subplot involving a man she meets in Thailand which feels slightly disconnected from the rest of the story, but once she leaves Thailand and arrives in Australia things become more interesting.

Until I read this book, CeCe was one of my least favourites of the sisters; because of the way she behaved whenever we saw her together with Star, I thought she was a bossy and controlling person, but it seems I had misjudged her. In this novel, we see a very different side of CeCe and discover just how dependent she had been on Star. She has a lot of insecurities as a result of her dyslexia and her appearance – she is convinced that her sisters are all much prettier than she is – and after a bad experience at art college she has even lost confidence in her abilities as an artist. As she gets closer to discovering her roots, CeCe begins to grow as a person; she finds some independence, makes new friends and enters into new relationships. The CeCe we leave behind at the end of the book seems a much happier person than the one we met at the start!

Earlier this week I said that I wanted to incorporate more books set outside my own country into my reading this year. The Pearl Sister takes place in two: Thailand and Australia. I particularly enjoyed the Australian settings – Broome and then Alice Springs – and I was as interested as Kitty and CeCe in learning about the history and culture of the Aboriginal people.

Having had the chance to get to know four of the D’Aplièse sisters now, I’m looking forward to the next two books on Tiggy and Electra.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone

In a hotel room in Wanting, a town on the borders of China and Burma, Na Ga is about to commit suicide. But when she’s interrupted by the hotel receptionist who tells her that her companion, Mr Jiang, has killed himself, Na Ga decides not to die just yet. Staying on alone in the hotel, she looks back on the circumstances that have led her to Wanting and begins to consider what she wants from her future.

Wendy Law-Yone instantly grabbed my attention with this fascinating and intriguing opening. The first chapter alone raised so many questions. Who is Na Ga and what is she doing in Wanting? What terrible things had happened in her life to cause her to want to kill herself? We do find out the answers to these questions, but only very slowly as Na Ga’s tragic story gradually unfolds.

We learn that Na Ga was born into Burma’s Wild Lu tribe and sold into slavery by her parents. From there, things go from bad to worse until she eventually ends up in Bangkok with her American lover, Will, who arranges for her to travel back to the village of her birth. The only problem is that Na Ga isn’t sure if she wants to go or not…and after years of conflict and unrest in Burma she doesn’t even know if her village still exists.

As you will have guessed, this is quite a bleak story but thankfully it’s not entirely without humour and lightness. Some of the lighter moments are provided by the character of Minzu, the happy, kind-hearted sixteen-year-old receptionist at the hotel in Wanting. Minzu is one of the few people who offers Na Ga genuine friendship and she brings a glimmer of hope and optimism to an otherwise harrowing story.

Na Ga herself could be a frustrating character at times, failing to take control of her own destiny and seeming to just accept all the bad things that happened to her, but I could see that much of her personality had been shaped by the abuse and neglect she was forced to endure over the years. She’d never had the freedom to choose what she wanted to do with her life. But while I did have a lot of sympathy for Na Ga, I was left feeling that I never really got to know her. I think the structure of the novel, interspersing the present day storyline with glimpses of Na Ga’s past, may have prevented me from becoming as fully absorbed in her story as I would have liked.

The Road to Wanting left me feeling saddened and angered. Some of the things that Na Ga experiences and witnesses are shocking and by the end of the novel I could understand what had driven her to consider suicide. The lack of connection I felt with Na Ga as a character is the only negative thing I can say about this excellent book.