REVIEW: The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick
Browsing an antiques shop in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait—identified as the doomed Tudor queen, Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better. The subject is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr, who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 and presumed dead after going missing as a child. And Alison knows this because she, too, lived at Wolf Hall and knew Mary…more than four hundred years ago.
The painting of Mary is more than just a beautiful object for Alison—it holds the key to her past life, the unlocking of the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance and how Alison can get back to her own time. To when she and Mary were childhood enemies yet shared a pact that now, finally, must be fulfilled, no matter the cost.
Dear Ms. Cornick,
Last year Kaetrin, one of our other reviewers, read “House of Shadows.” I haven’t read that but when I saw this book offered for review and it seemed to be of the same type, I decided to try it instead. There’s a lot going on here as it’s a dual timeline story which also has many characters in both eras. For those who want to know, there is a HFN ending for one couple and ultimately a HEA for another though they will have to wait a while to get it.
Alison Bannister just happens to look in through the window of an antiques gallery one cold winter evening and spies something that takes her breath away – a Tudor portrait of a young woman. In talking with the proprietor, she learns that it’s been authenticated as a (up until now unknown) painting of Anne Boleyn. But Alison knows who it really is and that it might be the clue she has been desperately searching for – for four hundred years.
She also learns that the portrait and the contents of a small box found with it are to be the cornerstone of a glossy historical book by Adam Hewer which he hopes to parley into fame and fortune as one of the new breed of historical experts like Bettany Hughes or Michael Woods who can make history sexy and sought after. Alison and Adam have history themselves. Ten years ago they were young and in love but Alison broke it off and things didn’t end well. When she confronts him, Adam pushes to know where she got her information and how she is so confident. Not able to tell him, she folds and leaves the store.
Mary Seymour might be the daughter of a Queen of England and high ranking nobleman and cousin to the late King Edward but she is unwanted, poor and being shuttled around to any relative who’ll take her. Her mother, Catherine Parr, died soon after Mary’s birth and her father, Thomas Seymour, was accused of treason and sent to the block when Mary was an infant. She finally ends up at Wolf Hall the unhappy roommate of another unwanted orphan named Alison Bannister.
The two don’t get along with Mary viewing Alison as prickly and selfish while Alison sees Mary as hopelessly naïve and too quiet. Yet they form a pact of survival in this household of strays and waifs, keeping each others’ secrets. The biggest is who is the father of Alison’s unborn child. At first banished from the house, Alison rues the day she gave into the entreties of her lover who now treats her with contempt and sends her child away. Alison hadn’t thought to feel anything for this child which has ruined her but unbidden she feels a fierce love and is devastated when Arthur is taken from her. Sent back to Wolf Hall to be married off, she extracts a promise from Mary to find out what happened to Arthur and leave her word of his fate. Then Alison vanishes.
Mary gets sent on to another household of distant relatives who are no more loving to her while the whispers that have floated around her follow her: witch and possessed. Mary not only sees visions but she and an unknown boy have a psychic connection over the years which brings Mary both solace and frustration. She also thinks she’s found love only to discover almost too late the truth of that man.
Meanwhile, present day Alison finally sees a list of the items that were found in the box with the portrait – her box which she’s convinced contains Mary’s clues for her to discover what happened to her son. But what to do about Adam who Alison is discovering she still has feelings for? It’s been Alison’s driving need to find and retrieve her son once she solves the mystery of his location and how to get back to him. Will she put that aside for Adam? And can the two of them solve the fate of Mary Seymour or will she remain lost to history?
The first fourth of this book zipped by for me. Much of it is spent in the 16th century watching Mary and Alison warily size each other up and survive the harsh realities of life in Tudor England. Alison frankly isn’t a very nice person but I could understand why – horribly orphaned at age six, she lived on charity and is well aware that her prospects are dim. Alison though, is a survivor which is what gets her through and away from those who would use and discard her.
The next part of the story seemed to lag a little. Terrible things happen and the two girls are often separated. I hadn’t realized how much I liked watching them strike sparks off each other. Mary is solitary and good at disappearing. Her birth might be better but she’s no better off than Alison. She’s given a promise to Alison and she’ll keep it but when she feels she’s found love, she realizes why Alison was ready to risk all for it. In order to survive, she makes some devil’s pacts along the way to discovering true love.
Mixed in with the historical are the modern day efforts of Alison to pry information from Adam and then try and figure out what to do with it. She’s managed to make a life for herself four hundred years into the future, telling only one person her real story. At one point, that person drops some interesting information on Alison. There’s also her relationship with Adam that sputters along with few clues as to what he really thinks.
At one point, Alison muses on whether or not she should give up her quest and see if a relationship was possible with Adam. I thought – “the hell?” We’re told that Alison’s focus has all been on trying to discover the fate of her son and she’s going to toss in the towel? It’s Adam who finds the most information. Honestly, despite the wonders of the internet and ten years of effort, there are times when I wondered why she hadn’t learned more than she did.
Mary’s relationship with her mental buddy was frustrating as well. Darrell would wander into and out of her mind whenever it seemed to suit him and shun her when he felt like it. Even as she was making her horrible mistakes for love, I could understand why this unloved young woman was grasping at the joy of thinking a man wanted her.
But as the book rounded for home, my suspension of belief got tested. I mean we have time travel, visions, psychic pals and then a ghost appears and a few bombshells go off. I’m as taken aback as Adam is. Just what else is going to happen and be treated as ordinary and everyday? Too many people also put 2 and 3 together and got 6 with the faintest clues suddenly falling into place for them to miraculously understand.
I wanted and had hoped I would enjoy this more than I did. Parts of it I really liked – such as the early days at Wolf Hall. I didn’t mind the sometimes unsympathetic main characters as they were given enough backstory to explain their actions and reactions. But ultimately there was just too much paranormal stuff being dumped all over the story end. C+/B-