A four-year-old girl walks off a ship in Australia in 1913 with a little white suitcase. No one meets her. She won’t say who she is or where she came from. The harbor master takes her home, calls her Nell, and adopts her, and she forgets her previous life. When she is 21 and on the verge of marriage, he tells her about it. This information is so shocking to Nell that she breaks with her fiancé and her family and isolates herself, feeling that she has been living a lie.
In 1975, Nell’s irresponsible daughter drops her own teenage daughter, Cassandra, at Nell’s house and drives away, never to return. Nell has other plans, but puts them aside to take care of her granddaughter.
In 2005, Cassandra is mourning Nell’s death. She has inherited Nell’s property but is only vaguely aware of her history. When she looks through Nell’s things, she finds a white suitcase with a book of fairy tales in it. She also finds that Nell never stopped looking for her real family. Continuing Nell’s search, Cassandra ends up in a small Cornish village where she learns she has inherited a small cottage on the Mountrachet estate.
Cassandra finds an entrance into a walled garden, and another one from there to the estate. Eventually, she also discovers the history of her grandmother’s parentage.
The book traces Nell’s history by alternating among these times. The modern story is one of investigating one’s roots, but the older tale is more gothic. Ultimately, it is the story of two cousins, the wealthy Rose Mountrachet and the slum-born Eliza Makepeace, who comes to live with her and be her companion.
A mystery about family secrets, the story is complex and enthralling. Some readers may be daunted by its length, but once you begin reading, you will not be able to stop.