Reviewed by Colleen Turner
After her employer dies suddenly, Ella Appleby grabs everything of value and her younger sister, Sadie, and runs for the anonymity of London. Believing she is destined for a better life than as an obedient servant to uncaring masters or an abusive father, she sees London as her chance to start fresh with endless possibilities. But 1661 London is filthy, overcrowded and cruel and while Ella’s country beauty blends in with others around them Sadie’s distinctive port wine stained face sets them apart, something that is dangerous for two girls trying to lay low. Even more dangerous is the angry twin brother of Ella’s previous employer, a man who believes the girls not only robbed but murdered his brother and will stop at nothing to seek justice.
When Ella’s pretty face and spunky personality lead her to a position as a sales girl for the Gilded Lily Ladies’ Emporium, selling pomades and powders to the rich women of the city, she feels her luck might be shifting. But her new employer, Jay Whitgift, is hiding a dark life that deals in dirty loan practices and procuring sordid delicacies for those that can pay. Ella’s concentration on the glitter around her at the Gilded Lily seems to blind her to the dangerous road he is leading her down.
As Ella falls farther and farther under the spell of Jay Whitgift she continues to drift away from Sadie. As her former employer’s brother gets closer to tracking the girls down, offering a hefty reward to anyone who can lead him to the “Savage Sisters”, Ella believes Sadie is keeping her from fully realizing her wish for a new life and begins making dubious decisions to further separate them. However, when the gilding of this much sought after new life begins to chip away, Ella realizes that she has lead them both into a web that they might not be able to survive.
Described as a companion volume to Deborah Swift’s The Lady’s Slipper, The Gilded Lily works perfectly as a stand-alone novel. The descriptions and dialogue immerse the reader in Restoration era London and it really is a shock to look up and realize that you aren’t actually slinking down the cramped back alleys with the Appleby sisters. Everything around the girls is harsh – from the weather to the people to their circumstances – and the reader is hard pressed not to wish right alongside them for a chance at a happy life.
The sisters could not be more different – Ella is beautiful, hot tempered and selfish for the majority of the time while Sadie is shy, sweet and innocently oblivious to a lot of what happens around her – and while I can’t say I was a fan of Ella’s decisions they are both very real representations of poor women trying to survive on their own in this time and place. Every single character highlights a different form of desperation and serves to show that money, status and belongings do not guarantee happiness. Far from a feel good story it is very real and raw and does hint at some good things to come in the future for certain characters.
Loving the dark corners and shiny optimism of the possibility of a better life when it couldn’t get much worse, The Gilded Lily is a great example of realistic historical fiction. I am excited to read The Lady’s Slipper and see how it ties in to the atmosphere and world this book makes me want to linger in a little longer.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review and giveaway copies were provided free of any obligation by St. Martin’s Griffin. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.