This is another superb book by Penny Vincenzi. I always enjoy her books as they have such strong female characters, full of determination and courage. She so accurately portrays the two sides of her female characters – on the surface they appear so well presented and to fit perfectly into their society with politeness, charm, meekness, obedience, and to never to do anything out of the ordinary, and yet just under the surface of this ‘sameness’ they have individuality, strong opinions, determination, failings, secrets, and often great unhappiness. No-one brings these 2 sides of a character to life as well as Vincenzi, and it makes compelling and fascinating reading.

This is the story of Cassia and how a windfall of money changes her life. On the surface this would appear a wonderful gift, but Cassia soon realises that, rather than solving all her problems, this money actually causes its own new problems and difficult choices, and that not only she, but those she loves, are changed by it. She gradually alters from being the polite, quiet, agreeable, submissive wife and mother, to a determined and independent woman with a career but, although she gains independence, she also risks damaging many important relationships along the way. The story is set in the 1920s and 30s which is a period I love reading about, as women were just beginning to become more independent, but still facing many struggles. I think Penny Vincenzi adores writing about this time too – her enthusiasm shines through, with her wonderful descriptions of clothes and fashion, the lightheartedness of this period after the war, and the growing freedom of women.

I do really like Cassia – she faces such dilemmas and choices and her life is turned upside-down. She is trying to do the right ‘proper’ thing and what is expected of her – to stay at home and be a dutiful wife and mother, but she actually wants (and is capable of) a rewarding career and this money allows her to achieve this, if she chooses. I also enjoyed following Cassia’s feelings about the money – at one time being excited and enjoying treating herself, and at other times feeling guilty and confused, and also her awareness of how the money causes a growing division between her and her husband. I also admired the fact that she is aware of how she has been changed by the money – she is brave enough to dislike the person she has become and to question her decisions, rather than defending and justifying her actions to herself and blaming everyone else.

All of Vincenzi’s characters are so well-rounded and complete. The story not only deals with Cassia and her experiences, but there are also several other subplots concerning other women in Cassia’s circle. We get to know Cecily’s and Edwina’s lives and how their public faces conceal dramatic secrets just under the surface. I also find it fascinating that even when other people in their circle are aware of these secrets, they are still not referred to – everyone plays their part to maintain this perfect and polite society. Cassia’s husband Edward is also an interesting character as we see how the money affects him – he feels threatened by the independence that it gives to Cassia, but in time identifies that he too wants more from life than the traditional expectations. It would be easy for Vincenzi to depict Edward as being selfish and holding Cassia back, but his character is fascinating as well as he is a reflection of his time and is struggling to deal with his feelings of powerlessness as his wife grows to need him less and less.

I also like the way Vincenzi refers to real historic events of the time, such as Edward and Mrs Simpson – this makes her story seem all the more real, but also echoes beautifully the themes and dilemmas that her characters face – the choice between love and duty.

This is a really enjoyable book – as are all Penny Vincenzi’s, a joy from beginning to end.