From the windswept prairies of Kansas to downtown Chicago, and from rural Norfolk to the rarefied atmosphere of Chelsea and Mayfair society, D.J. Taylor’s latest novel includes a motley cast of characters and landscapes, forming separate strands that weave together as the plot moves towards an unlooked-for end. A chance encounter and a delayed train journey results in an invitation that triggers a life-changing chain of events. Even seemingly insignificant occurrences – a snowstorm, a safe left ajar – can prompt unpremeditated actions and consequences: after being seduced by the travelling salesman, George Drouett, in 1904, Alice Alden is saved by a Lutheran preacher, Sven Hanson, who knocks on the door of the isolated house in De Smet, and finally – having escaped to London and made her name on the stage – she marries the rich but consumptive businessman Guy Keach. However, in order to bring about this last transformation, from actress to society hostess and heiress, Alice is forced to abandon the child who is her only tie to her past life in America.
In a parallel plot, the narrator is a small boy growing up in a sprawling country house who, on the outbreak of the Great War, is informally adopted by the housekeeper’s brother. Through a series of harebrained schemes this eccentric inventor develops a receipt for coal-tar dye that heralds a complete transformation in his and Ralph’s fortunes. As the economic storm clouds gather in the late 1920s, however, these business disasters are reflected in Alice’s life by Drouett’s unexpected arrival in London. What does he want is the question Alice repeatedly asks. With its vignettes of the bright young things of London society and richly detailed settings, this is an exploration of change and identity that both entertains and disturbs.