At the end of my sixth grade year, my mother shattered her leg in a riding accident, and my father’s parents drove out from Colorado to help. Both of them were near-perfect relics of the British empire–my grandmother had been raised in Kobe and my grandfather in St. Petersburg; they had met in Calcutta, where my father was born–and both were exceptionally well-read.
While my mother convalesced in a body cast, I spent the summer sheltered in my grandparents’ caravan, talking with my grandmother as the Seattle rain drummed the roof. Hers was not a maternal nature. She used to say that she disliked babies, and only took interest in children when they were old enough to ask questions. She was slender and wiry and razor-sharp; she took her daily walkies, drank her daily Scotch, and liked dogs more than people. I looked at those black-and-white photos of her at the Bengal Club in the thirties and marveled; she was so glamorous in her gowns and dark lipstick, whereas the Flo I knew never wore dresses and kept her peppery hair cropped against her skull. Her only concession to beauty was her afternoon Noxzema wash. She would bend over the sink and splash her face clean, and I’d ask her about friends, about boys, about books. She would always answer me seriously, as she would address a grownup.
At some point that summer, probably to get a little peace and quiet, she gave me her ancient omnibus edition of Baroness Orczy. “I loved the Scarlet Pimpernel when I was a girl. A la lanterne!” she said, in her prewar accent, and her eyes gleamed.
I ran off with my treasure and devoured it all. I’d read obsessively, promiscuously, from an early age: Little House and the Oz books, the Black Stallion and Anne of Green Gables, all of them falling to pieces in my bookshelf. But this was something more grown-up. Sir Percy Blakeney was no Gilbert Blythe; he was a dashing adventurer, an intrepid spy and master of disguise, posing flawlessly as a dopey English aristocrat. He was also man enough to choose the cleverest woman in Europe for his bride. How I swooned when Marguerite tried to win him back on a dawn-lit terrace; he resisted, but once she left, “he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last.”
But I am an unbridled romantic. What the devil was Sir Percy Blakeney doing in my British grandmother’s stiff upper heart? She, whom the Tokyo earthquake had rattled not at all; she, who had gone trekking in Sikkim at my grandfather’s side and smelled of Scotch and Noxzema? I never thought to ask her.
I wish I could say I still have that old copy of Orczy, but I loaned it out to a friend and never saw it again. Since then, I’ve known and loved thousands of other books and characters, but The Scarlet Pimpernel was my first passionate literary love. My grandmother and I, maybe we’re not so far apart after all.
OVERSEAS is Beatriz Williams’ mesmerizing debut novel. I read it in two giant gulps and loved every word of it. Sweeping and grand and everything a love story should be. And the good news? We’re giving away two signed copies today! Leave a comment on this post if you’d like to be entered to win a copy.
Over time. Over distance. Overseas.
When twenty-something Wall Street analyst Kate Wilson attracts the notice of the legendary Julian Laurence at a business meeting, no one’s more surprised than she is. Julian’s relentless energy and his extraordinary intellect electrify her, but she’s baffled by his sudden interest. Why would this handsome British billionaire—Manhattan’s most eligible bachelor—pursue a pretty but bookish young banker who hasn’t had a boyfriend since college?
The answer is beyond imagining . . . at least at first. Kate and Julian’s story may have begun not in the moneyed world of twenty-first-century Manhattan but in France during World War I, when a mysterious American woman emerged from the shadows of the Western Front to save the life of Captain Julian Laurence Ashford, a celebrated war poet and infantry officer.