Staid, responsible Elodie Buchanan is the eldest of ten sisters living in a small English market town in 1861. The girls barely know their father, a plant hunter usually off adventuring through China. Then disaster strikes: Mr. Buchanan reneges on his contract to collect an extremely rare and valuable orchid. He will be thrown into debtors’ prison while his daughters are sent to the orphanage and the workhouse.
Elodie can’t stand by and see her family destroyed, so she persuades her father to return to China once more to try to hunt down the flower—only this time, despite everything she knows about her place in society, Elodie goes with him. She has never before left her village, but what starts as fear turns to wonder as she adapts to seafaring life aboard the tea clipper The Osprey, and later to the new sights, dangers, and romance of China. But now, even if she can find the orchid, how can she ever go back to being the staid, responsible Elodie that everybody needs?
Can you love a book whilst feeling kind of 'meh' about it because I really do. I was drawn to this book initially because of the gorgeous cover, and then by the historical setting. But I'll admit to being slightly bored by the first few chapters. Once the story got going however, it really did well and I loved the whole onboard ship-hiding and the trekking about in search of orchid sections way more than I anticipated.
Where the story fell apart for me was the romance. Because it developed too fast, then too slow, then too fast and I AM CONFUSED. Firstly, Elodie fell in love with Alex super fast, she spotted him on a ship and was in lust with him and then after about two days on board it was love. But then off the ship, it went nowhere for ages. They barely acted like friends and it really didn't come across romantic to me at all. AND THEN, towards the end of the book everything escalated really fast and they were desperately in love. I've just got whiplash. I almost feel like this shouldn't have had romance as such a strong focus. Or not in this way at least. If the romance plot line had resolved where I felt like it should and then the story had continued on - I would have been fine. But it felt like it just kept popping in to disturb the (very good) storyline and then popping out again.
Non-romantic relationships were done so, so well however. Sharon Biggs Waller perfectly captures that coming-of-age where you realise your parents aren't who you always idolised them to be, and then the journey back around to loving them just the same, faults and all. There is also a strong and realistic sister relationship which I always appreciate reading. Elodie and Violet were the saving grace of the first few chapters - so very different from each other but so unstintingly there for each other all the same. And the unconventional sister relationship between Elodie and Ching Lan was my absolute favourite. Ching Lan was probably my favourite character and I would love to read a book from her perspective.
When historical books follow a white woman into China I'm always slightly nervous it will turn all white-saviour. I don't feel like that happened here. The representation of China or Chinese cultures I can't speak to, not knowing much. But I loved that when Elodie kept trying to save Ching Lan with the power of English, Ching Lan was quick to shut her down.
"You can't fix everything! What else do you think you control? The ocean tides? The moon's beams? You Westerners think you can change China, that it needs fixing. We are not yours to fix or to change."
This was overall a really unique and interesting read and I definitely enjoyed it. I do wish the romance had been either less of a focus, or a little more strong in the way it was written - but I adored the character relationships and was fascinated by the plant hunting (which is a bit of a surprise since I can't keep any plants save cacti alive in real life).