Canadian author Jennifer Robson sets her newest novel in postwar Britain. It is 1953, Elizabeth II’s coronation year. As in Robson’s best-selling The Gown, the royal is a background figure. Central is Miss Edie Howard, proprietor of the historic Blue Lion hotel, founded in 1560 by a distant Howard. Edie hopes desperately that the coronation route—bringing the Queen in her golden coach past the Blue Lion—will fill the hotel with paying customers so urgently needed to keep it afloat. Meanwhile, Edie’s life becomes intertwined with her hotel’s guests. Stella Donati, a young Italian photographer and Holocaust survivor newly hired by Picture Weekly magazine, is resident. So is Scottish-born artist James Geddes, a war hero of Indian descent, working on a newly commissioned painting. Mysterious longer-term residents, including a retired history professor, the Blue Lion’s eccentric staff, and anonymous threats written on Blue Lion stationery are all part of the mix.
Robson’s far-ranging themes encompass the importance of legend and family, as well as war’s long-lasting and devastating effects. Throughout, she taps timeless themes of human nature, such as life-struggles familiar to many. More than one character asks of their lives, searchingly: “Does that make sense?” It adds up to a compelling tale, mostly believable, spun by a talented author whose formal training in British economic and social history comes through. Although the novel’s 1950s setting at times fades from view, readers are nonetheless treated to historically informed descriptions of well-known London buildings and landmarks, artwork from Constable’s landscapes to Stubbs’s horses, and mouth-watering meals of succulent Indian curries, Italian delicacies, and, of course, English afternoon teas.