Bottom Line: Decent pseudo-Gothic thriller perfect for summer
“On the eve of the Second World War, the last surviving specimen of a camellia plant known as the Middlebury Pink lies secreted away on an English country estate. Flora, an amateur American botanist, is contracted by an international ring of flower thieves to infiltrate the household and acquire the coveted bloom. Her search is at once brightened by new love and threatened by her discovery of a series of ghastly crimes.More than half a century later, garden designer Addison takes up residence at the manor, now owned by the family of her husband, Rex. The couple’s shared passion for mysteries is fueled by the enchanting camellia orchard and an old gardener’s notebook. Yet its pages hint at dark acts ingeniously concealed. If the danger that Flora once faced remains very much alive, will Addison share her fate?”
Thoughts: Flora loves her parents and would do anything to help them. So when a mysterious stranger offers her a job locating a missing and highly prized botanical specimen or else risk her parents’ health, she finds herself crossing the Atlantic Ocean and entering the world of an English manor as the household’s new nanny. While there, she inadvertently discovers the truth behind some unsolved disappearances and soon ends up disappearing herself. Over half a decade later, Addison too finds herself fleeing across the Atlantic Ocean and heading to the very same English manor. While she is hoping to put her demons behind her, she finds herself drawn into the manor’s mysterious past. As her past closes in on her, she attempts to uncover the truth on those long-ago crimes as well, before she ends up meeting the same fate as Flora. Sarah Jio’s latest novel, The Last Camellia, has all of the charms and atmosphere as a true Gothic mystery, with its foreboding past, mysteriously sinister servants, hidden secrets, and missing heirlooms. Fast-paced and distinct, it will win over new readers and reaffirm fans’ love of her charming stories.
The overgrown gardens, the elderly servants, the charms of a bygone era – Ms. Jio capitalizes on the pre-established atmosphere that automatically comes with an English manor to create the mystery into which Addison stumbles. She uses each element to her advantage. The gardens playing a key role in the mystery, and the contrast between Flora’s story and Addison’s highlights the quaintness of the manor system. Unfortunately, she does nothing to take these familiar and oft-used elements and make them her own. Her characters are too much like archetypes, as is the setting, and her subplots feel forced, as they do nothing to further the story. Even her ancient, devoted servant is a bit too much like Mrs. Danvers, complete with bedroom that was left exactly as it was on the mistress’ last day of life, thereby ruining the overall effect because it all but forces readers to draw comparisons to other similar novels. It is easy to see what Ms. Jio was aiming to achieve, but such comparisons only serve to highlight the weaknesses of the story, namely its lack of creativity and triteness.
Setting aside the negatives, The Last Camellia is proof that even the weakest story is enjoyable if one does not overanalyze it. While Addison’s side story is fluff, doing nothing more than giving her a reason to go to England, the main mystery behind Flora’s disappearance and the missing camellia tree are satisfying and engaging. The juxtaposition between the beautiful, showy blooms of the camellia against the disappearing young women and the tragedy that permeates the household adds to the intrigue. The characters may be poorly defined, with minimal development, but that does not prevent Flora from being adorably naïve and devoted while Addison has a determination about her that is not easily ignored. The ending is enough to satisfy the romantics, while the mystery provides a good balance to the sappier elements. Fans of Ms. Jio will be delighted her latest novel, as she branches out into a pseudo-Gothic thriller while still relying on the two-period format that has brought her such success. Other readers will enjoy it for what it is – an easy and enjoyable summer mystery.