Blending history, fiction, and romance, The Girl on the Cliff is about many things,
including the emancipation of the sexes and the price of loyalty and duty. Riley does a good job of framing her story around the Sleeping Beauty fairytale,
though she has a tendency to beat us over the head with the characters' emotions. As her tale plays out on the Irish coast and in New York,
she handles the surprising plot twists with compassion (even if we sometimes find ourselves anticipating every move).
Similar in style to
her earlier novel The Orchard House, Riley tells the story of two competing families and their intertwined histories
before and after the Great War in the UK and Ireland. Blessed with a fiery, independent nature, artist Grania flees Manhattan and the arms of her boyfriend, Matt. Traveling to West Cork and into the bosom of
her kindly mother, Kathleen, Grania spends her solitary days walking the cliffs by her parents' farm outside the village of Clonakilty.
Here she spies a little girl of maybe eight or nine standing in her nightie up on the cliff’s edge.
With her beautiful red hair, the girl appears to be sleepwalking towards Dunworly House, the big deserted estate that stands right on top of the cliffs.
Shocked at the sight of the child, Grania learns that four years previously, the girl’s mother killed herself, the event forever casting a dark cloud over the Lisle family. Held in thrall by “this small ethereal being,” Grania is charmed by Aurora’s eagerness as she dances by the cliff-face like a young gazelle--and also by Aurora’s handsome father, Alexander Lisle, who will come to help Grania indulge in her girlish dreams of the future.
When Grania is given a heavy pile of letters written by Aurora’s mother, the story begins, the characters are put in place, and the gossamer curtain between reality and dream is opened by Princess Aurora herself. Grania flashes back to young Mary, a parlor maid working at Dunworly who is suddenly indentured to a vast, wealthy House in London. A bright girl and a hard worker, Mary dreams of reconnecting with Sean, her one true love. These are the very best passages as Riley fills her tale with images of a country enduring much wartime chaos, turmoil and heartache.
Mary’s poignant account of her life is filled with sadness, honor, and love. As parallels between Aurora’s current situation and Mary's are revealed, Alexander fills in the gaps of their family history. This forces Grania to recognize that her own Prince Charming will perhaps
once again appear and carry her off to a life of perfect love. Riley alternates between scenes in Manhattan, where Matt is frustrated and devastated but also flummoxed at the reason Grania has cast him out of her life, and Grania's days in Cork, where she seems unable to bring herself to confront Matt or work out why her feelings have become so irrational.
As the pages turn, we become more involved with the intertwined lives of the Ryans and the Lisles, from Aurora’s past and the machinations of Mary’s former employer, Sebastian Lisle.
From the chaos of revolutionary Russia, Lisle brings baby Anna into Mary's life,
this girl who will prove to be both Mary's savior and her nemesis. The most engaging aspect of this book is the smooth narrative and the intimate voices of the past and present--all memorable characters, especially those from the Great War period. Mary is a sensitive, smart girl who has to carve a future from the fear and impermanence of wartime. The reader never questions her choices even when her talented adopted daughter is in danger of losing her connection to the past.
Ironically, a melodramatic deathbed confession brings about real change, putting Grania on a path toward motherhood and romantic fulfillment. Gray clouds scud across Dunworthy Bay, and Grania finds pride in her collection of sculptures while realizing that in some ways her arrogance has blighted her life.
It’s Aurora’s waterfall of love that really connects Grania to the world, enabling her to mute her passionate emotions and perhaps overcome the terrible wounds inflicted by the Lisle family's past.