Ah, the dangers of eavesdropping:
When Miles first saw Cynthia Brightly at a ball, he was instantly captivated. Ever the scientist, he set out to find out more about this woman who fascinated him so. And chances upon her having a conversation with a friend.
His pride (and his heart) are crushed completely when he hears Cynthia dismissing him as a mere second son with no other prospects without having ever met him.
And so, Miles Redmond sets out to forget about Cynthia and tries to make something of himself.
It is two years later and the tables have been turned.
Miles is now a celebrated explorer and naturalist. And he is also the "heir" of the Redmonds since his older brother's disappearance.
And Cynthia is now desperate.
A flippant decision leads to her complete social ruin. She has fled London as quickly as she can and accepted Violet Redmond's invitation to join her in Sussex, hoping that the scandal would not catch up with her there.
What I love about Julie Anne Long's characters is that they are not paragons of perfection -- but very real, very relatable people who've been knocked off the pedestal and are, perhaps, chipped in a place or two. They're trying to get back on their feet and dust off the past or the present.
I did not want to like Cynthia. My early notes about her point out how mercenary and machinating she was. How like a spider to lure hapless prey to her web, but Cynthia also reminds me of Walt Whitman's Noiseless, Patient Spider -- a solitary creature who only seeks connections by casting out threads of her web.
Julie Anne Long provides us with a unique perspective on this predatory creature -- it is also a survivor:
..."She'll rebuild it," he told her... "She won't think anything of it. It's just a part of her life. sewing her world back together again, sometimes even daily."
- Miles, in reference to a spider's web, p. 99
But Cynthia's true character is like the specie Lepidoptera Miles thinks her to be. It is an apt comparison -- the specie encompasses the grandest and most beautiful butterfly and also the lowliest and plainest moth. Cynthia is a butterfly. The gentlest touch or attempt to touch will have her flutter her wings to fly away. She keeps her true self to herself and doesn't allow anyone to see it.
Miles sees it, though. He sees the mutability of her character and discovers the elusive truth about her -- with his skills as a scientist and observer, he finds the onus that has driven Cynthia Brightly to be the person that she is.
Cynthia is a character to be sympathized with, not to be pitied. And I found myself rooting for her in the end.
I also loved Violet's description of Miles as gravity -- both meanings equally applicable to him. As natural gravity, he is the pull that draws his entire family together in Pennyroyal Green. Without him, they would all scatter away. But Miles is also gravity. Deep, deliberate, and important.
Like yin and yang, Cynthia's colorful brightness compliments Miles' black-and-white world. Miles' gravity keeps Cynthia grounded and stable.
Julie Anne Long has a gift for writing detail. Only she can write about a worn sole, or overused buttonholes and make them meaningful. Details are written not as a recitation for the purpose of creating historical background -- but for the purpose of deepening the story. It invites the readers to read more closely and to pay attention to the quiet moments of the story.
This was an utterly absorbing story with characters one can sympathize with.