1924. The English Shires, after the Great War.
When her jazzing flapper of an aunt dies, Gerardina Mary Chiledexter inherits some silver-topped scent bottles, a wardrobe of love-affair clothes, and astonishingly, a half-share in a million-acre ranch in south-west Texas.
Haunted by a psychic cat and the ghost voice of that aunt Leonie, Gerry feels driven to travel thousands of miles to see the ranch for herself.
Against a background of big sky, cattle barons and oil wells, she is soon engaged in a game of power, pride and ultimately, love, with the Texan who owns the other half.
I have absolutely no idea why it’s taken me so long to get round to reading this book. I think I’ve had it on my Kindle since publication day, and I also have the beautiful shiny paperback, too. No excuses. Somehow, time slipped away from me and the book remained unread. Until yesterday, when I switched on my Kindle, scrolled through the long (very long) list of books on the device, saw the pretty cover of this novel and tapped on the image. I began reading and…Wow!
It’s quite a long novel, but I read it in two straight sittings over two consecutive days. I would have devoured it in one day, if it wasn’t the inconvenience of having a pesky day job. Yes, it was that good.
It’s the story of Gerardina Chiledexter – Gerry to her friends. Gerry was the product of two rather selfish, uncaring parents, and spent her childhood being passed around from one reluctant relative to another, until good fortune landed her on the doorstep of her mother’s sister, Leonie. Leonie was unlike anyone Gerry has ever known – beautiful, elegant, and huge fun. More than that, she made Gerry feel welcome, wanted, loved. After Leonie’s death, Gerry is struggling. She misses her aunt. She misses that sense of belonging. And she’s drowning in debt, because, the one thing that Leonie wasn’t, was good with money. Leonie lived for the day, and she didn’t put finances in place to pay her bills, leaving Gerry with a huge headache. She’s running her aunt’s bookshop and it’s in massive danger of closing. She owes money to just about everyone, the building is falling down around her ears, and no one seems particularly interested in buying books. It seems her only option may be to accept the desperate proposal of Archie, in spite of his parents’ very obvious disapproval and muttered objections.
Then, unexpectedly, Gerry is thrown a lifeline. Out of the blue, she discovers that – as Leonie’s only heir – she has been left half of a ranch in Texas, by a man she has never met, but who intended to leave it to her aunt. She is given this news by the owner of the other half. His name is Coop, and he’s not too happy about discovering that the land he thought was all his is now shared with this odd, stubborn, Englishwoman, with a very weird dress sense.
Events – and a ghostly presence – conspire to send Gerry over to Texas, where she is determined to take a good look around the ranch for herself, before agreeing to Coop’s request – or should that be order? – that she sell her half to him. Texas is an alien world, and Gerry struggles to fit in. Coop doesn’t seem keen to help her adapt, and neither does anyone else in that hostile territory, particularly the feral Scoot, and the high-and-mighty Hallie-Lee. Gerry truly believed she was going to America at the wishes of her deceased aunt. At times, she feels Leonie’s presence so strongly that she can actually hear her aunt’s voice in her ear, smell her perfume, hear the swish of her dress across the floor. At other times, she feels abandoned and alone. Has she made a dreadful mistake in travelling so far away from home?
After spending several awkward and uncomfortable months on the ranch, Gerry makes some discoveries about her business partner, and comes to a decision that is guaranteed to stir up trouble back in England – something which is quickly confirmed on her return. Hurt, bewildered, and absolutely broke, it seems Gerry’s troubles will never be over. But was Leonie’s guidance really just a product of her over-active imagination, or is her aunt still trying to give her niece the happy ending she deserves?
This book is so beautifully written. The descriptions are perfection. With a few deft lines, June Kearns transports the reader to the dusty plains of Texas, and lets you feel the scorching heat on your back, before taking you back to England, where the cosy, damp, cricket-and-afternoon-tea environment comes alive within a paragraph or two of clever prose.
The characterisations are excellent. Coop is an enigmatic, alpha male, with a brooding presence and hidden depths. I absolutely adored Gerry, with her can-do attitude, and her determination to carry on without complaining, in spite of some pretty appalling treatment by far too many people. I loved the stoic Prim, the kindly Doc, the wildcat Scoot and poor, dear Archie – he of the hideously awful parents and the dark, desperate secret.
I loved the way England was contrasted with Texas, and against all my expectations, I enjoyed the American segment of the book as much as the English ones. The addition of the ghostly presence of the wonderful Leonie was a touch of genius, and as for the quotes at the beginning of each chapter – priceless! For instance, “Women approaching thirty may have lost all chance of inspiring affection.” (Advice to Miss-All-Alone, 1924), and “Try not to have ‘opinions’. Rather, learn to cook a decent dinner.” (How to Attract a Man, 1923). The book beautifully illustrates a serious point, however, which is that in the 1920s, thanks to the First World War and the ‘flu epidemic, men of a marriageable age were in very short supply, and there were many, many women who faced a lifetime of spinsterhood – not half as much fun in those days as it is now! So I could really feel for Gerry, who, fast approaching thirty, had given up all expectation of marriage, and was therefore even more desperate to earn a reasonable living. I could quite understand that she would consider accepting Archie’s proposal, even though she knows that marriage to him could never make her happy.
Like An Englishwoman’s Guide to the Cowboy, June’s previous novel, this book contrasts a young Englishwoman, her lifestyle and manners, with a hunky American male, used to behaving in a very different manner to the gentlemen the heroine usually meets, and she does it with love, humour and understanding. I loved her first book, and I actually think this one is even better. I’m sort of sorry I left it so long, but then again, I’m glad to have had the pleasure of Coop’s and Gerry’s company this last couple of days. An excellent book. I really hope there’s a new one from this author very soon. 5/5
You can buy The 20’s Girl, The Ghost, and All That Jazz here.