After her mother dies, Rebecca is reintroduced to an estranged elderly relative, Olivia, and she decides to head to her home by the sea in Cornwall, England, to make herself useful to the old woman. There, she begins to uncover the details of Olivia’s life—including her time during the war, her first love and her surprising hobby—some of which lead to more questions and long-buried secrets.
How did you get the idea for this story?
“It wasn’t my usual way into a story. My mother had been very ill, and we’d been talking quite a lot about her past, and she had spent her teenage years during the war in Cornwall. We talked about her experiences, and it suddenly struck me that we’re losing all that oral history as people from that generation die, and so I started thinking about what this rural place must have been like during the war. I talked to a couple of the old boys in the village as well and strung together quite a lot of their memories. The additional research I did turned up some extraordinary things—for example, the local farms were manned by prisoners of war they had captured during combat or had interned. I thought, ‘How fascinating.’ I do focus on a cultural clash with all my books, but the starting point here was different.”
So, the story thread from the past came first and you added the modern perspective?
“There’s always a secret that I keep up my sleeve until the end of the book, and that’s often where I start. And then I layer and layer and layer on top of that and weave stories in and out of it. Everything’s there for a reader who’s looking, but you shouldn’t be able to put it together until the end. I needed somebody who would actually discover those hidden secrets in the family background. And this information isn’t just volunteered, so I felt like I needed someone who would go at it from a different perspective, or else Olivia would have gone to her grave without sharing any of it.”
There are love stories here, but they seem secondary to the personal transformations each woman goes through. Was that intentional?
“The central relationship is between Rebecca and Olivia. And I think because Rebecca has just lost her mother and because her mother hid her illness, she’s feeling doubly lost. So when she has a chance to connect with this elderly, remote relative, it’s a sort of redemption for her because she didn’t have a chance to get close to her mother before she died. For Olivia, she has just sort of grown this shell around herself for 50 years or more. And she—this miserable, crotchety character—needs to be cracked open.”
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