In “The Girl Who Wrote in Silk,” Seattle-area author Kelli Estes tells the story of two young women in Seattle and the San Juans living 130 years apart, connected by a secret. Estes reads July 26 at the Eagle Harbor Book Co. and July 30 at Parkplace Books in Kirkland.
Seattle-area author Kelli Estes combines history, mystery, tragedy and romance in her debut novel, “The Girl Who Wrote in Silk” (Sourcebooks Landmark, 390 pp., $14.99). And if that isn’t ambitious enough, Estes also employs a dual narrative to tell this story. Two young women, 130 years apart, are the principal characters.
In the late 1800s, Liu Mei Lien works in her father’s store in Seattle’s Chinatown and practices embroidery with her grandmother until their lives are turned inside out by the anti-Chinese purges sweeping the West Coast. When a mob drives them from the only home she has ever known, Mei Lien is thrown — literally — into a whole new living situation in the San Juan Islands.
Alternating with Mei Lien’s tale of survival is the story of Inara Erickson in the present day. Freshly graduated with an MBA from the University of Washington, Inara is all set to start her job in management at Starbucks. But she gets figuratively thrown off course when an eccentric older aunt dies, leaving her Orcas Island estate to Inara with instructions that it be turned into a bed-and-breakfast.
The author of “The Girl Who Wrote in Silk” will appear at 3 p.m. Sunday, July 26, at Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island, free (206-842-5332 or eagleharborbooks.com); and at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 30, Parkplace Books, 348 Parkplace Center, Kirkland, free (425-828-6546 or parkplacebookskirkland.com).
The property has been in the family for six generations, and Inara loves the place — she thinks it would make a great boutique hotel. But she has to convince her father, the CEO of Seattle’s biggest shipping firm, to loan her the money to do the necessary upgrades and renovations.
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Not at all enthused about her change of plans, he provides the money with very strict terms. If she has not convinced him that she has developed a viable plan by the end of the summer — just three months away — she will have to sell the property and take the Starbucks job.
Even before the contractors arrive to begin work, Inara discovers a mysterious bundle hidden behind the stairs of the old house. It appears to be a silk sleeve that has been cut from a garment, and on the sleeve is an intricately embroidered — and puzzling — scene.
Inara is compelled to learn more — her initial research leads her to seek out the expertise of a UW professor. Dr. Chin is a handsome fellow who confirms that she has something special. He offers to assign some of his graduate students to do more research on the sleeve.
His interest in her artifact is sincere, but clearly he also is interested in Inara, and the feeling is mutual. But their budding relationship may not be able to survive after the traumatic secrets of the silk sleeve are revealed.
It is refreshing that Estes features two interracial romances in this story, and the historical romance features significant coverage of the overt cultural war that white settlers were waging on their Chinese neighbors back in the late 1800s.
There is also a powerful story line between Mei Lien and her son that will cause tear-stained pages for more than a few readers.
But not all of the characters are drawn with such depth, and there are some bumpy spots in the logic of the narrative. Among them: the astoundingly short timeline for Inara to accomplish the renovation of the estate; the questionable pressure she feels to start paying back her student loans (remember, she’s the daughter of a shipping magnate!); and the whirlwind romance between Inara and the professor, which seems to be more a matter of plot contrivance than of chemistry.
Estes has drawn on some rich historical resources for this tale and she is capable of writing emotionally resonant scenes. But ultimately — perhaps due to the formulaic expectations of the genre — her story is not entirely convincing.