Star d’Aplièse, the third of the six adopted sisters in Lucinda Riley’s dual-timeline adoption mystery series is the subject of The Shadow Sister. Riley excels at combining a contemporary mystery with a related historical story and so far in the series Star has been something of an enigma. Almost twinned to CeCe, her nearest sister in age, she is the quiet unassuming one in this flamboyant family. In The Shadow Sister,she steps out of the shadows and discovers a past involving Beatrix Potter, Mrs Keppel and the King of England.
When their adopted father Pa Salt dies, he leaves each girl a letter and clue about their birth. Star’s journey takes her first to Kensington, London, to an eccentric rare bookseller where Star, grieving and feeling adrift in life, takes a job as bookshop assistant. She soon proves herself irreplaceable to shop owner Orlando who invites her to his family home in Kent. There she meets his surly brother Mouse – who Star thinks of as ‘The Sewer Rat’ – and delightful nephew Rory. As Star becomes caught up in the turmoil of the Vaughan family, distance grows between herself and CeCe. Slowly Star recognises that in order to work out who she is, she must be separate from her sister.
This novel is not just the contemporary story of Star ‘finding herself’ it is also the story of her ancestry. The historical strand takes us back to 1909 to Flora MaNichol who lives at Esthwaite Hall in the Lake District, and is a neighbour to Beatrix Potter. Flora’s family life is enigmatic, although she is the older sister it is the younger Aurelia who is given a London season and engagement to Archie, destined to be Lord Vaughan, encouraged. Flora would rather run wild on the fells, drawing animals and plants, avoiding her censorious father. Her life takes a turn when she too must live in London, at the house of Mrs Keppel, notorious mistress to the King. Star’s clue hints at a wealthy inheritance, a small onyx animal figurine named ‘Panther’. How can this be connected to Flora; why is she feted as a guest by Mrs Keppel, and what are the connections to Star a century later?
One issue I have with the series is that rather than actually being about the sisters’ mysterious parentage and how Pa Salt came to adopt them, they tell a historical story set two or three generations earlier. So far I have enjoyed all three of the historical stories; I am reading the series in order. The historical strands are linked to each relevant sister, but I am left feeling slightly short-changed about the truth of their birth. I want to know more about the birth parents and how Pa Salt came to adopt them. However in this book, more than the first two, his shadow is more evident so perhaps his story will be unveiled in the seventh book of the series.