When her father dies unexpectedly, Lucy Cardwell discovers he’d being doing some family research after discovering the existence of an uncle nobody seems to want to talk about. Who was Rafe and why is he a secret? While on a trip to Cornwall, Lucy decides to visit Carlyon Manor, her grandmother’s childhood home, but she is dismayed when it turns out to be a burnt out shell. Making enquiries in the nearby village, Lucy is directed to Beatrice, an elderly lady who grew up with the Wincanton children and was a close friend of her grandmother Angelina. Lucy is astounded when Beatrice begins to unravel an extraordinary tale of friendship, love and betrayal which began in the 1930s and ended with the Second World War.
For Beatrice, life in Cornwall as an only child was lonely, but things changed the summer the Wincanton family arrived at Carlyon Manor and Beatrice became the companion of the eldest daughter. Pretty and blonde, Angelina is everything the awkward Beatrice wants to be but the girls become close until the differences in their social class start to pull them apart. Things become increasingly strained when Beatrice falls in love with Rafe Ashton, a young man she rescues from the sea, who ultimately falls for Angelina when they are introduced.
The idyllic life in Cornwall is brought to an abrupt end with the advent of the Second World War, and when Beatrice learns Angelina and Rafe are to marry, she heads to London where she joins the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). Believing Rafe is out of her reach, Beatrice begins a relationship with a soldier on leave, but before they can marry, Guy is killed at the front leaving a pregnant Beatrice alone. Beatrice turns to the Wincantons for help but is astounded to learn Angelina is now planning to marry Rafe’s brother. Angelina and Rafe never had the chance to marry before the war interrupted everyone’s plans and now that he is a prisoner of war, Angelina has fallen in love with his brother instead.
After the birth of her son, Beatrice is ecstatic when Rafe returns to London and with Angelina out of the picture, she hopes they can find some happiness together but Rafe gets involved in increasingly dangerous missions he cannot talk about. Determined to do more herself, Beatrice is given the chance to get involved in espionage which will take her to Occupied France, but it will mean leaving her son with Angelina. Beatrice has no inkling the childless Angelina will claim her son for her own and she will never see him again.
A Gathering Storm is a past-present tale, however the majority of the story is told in the past and Lucy’s investigation in the present is mainly used as a framework as her won story is not given much depth. The mystery behind the identity of Lucy’s father is easy to guess but that’s okay because that isn’t really the point of the tale as it is more concerned with how the characters got to that point in the first place. Much of the story is told by Beatrice in the present, so we really have to read between the lines to get any idea of why Angelina behaved the way she did as Angelina’s actions are very much coloured by Beatrice’s take. Although Lucy isn’t completely an impartial observer, there is enough distance between the past and the present for her to see things with a different perspective and I liked how her questions gave Beatrice food for thought even after all these years. This is especially important because the majority of the main players are long dead, including Angelina, so Beatrice needs to find closure in a different way.
The author does a great job of contrasting the idyllic childhood experienced by the characters in Cornwall with the horrors of the war and Beatrice’s job with FANY means she is witness to some particularly harrowing scenes. As interesting as Beatrice’s work with FANY was, I have to say I was more interested in her espionage work and I really wish the author had spent more time on this but it happens far too late in the novel to be explored further. Although the spying trips to France are dealt with really quickly, you do get the sense of risk being taken on a daily basis, especially by the French resistance, and it is just a shame they weren’t a bigger part of Beatrice’s story. In fact, I’d have loved for the whole book to have been about Beatrice sacrificing her child to do espionage work for her country.
By the time the war ends, Beatrice is a bona fide war hero, yet she still can’t get her child back from Angelina. While we are told Beatrice and Rafe eventually got married and continued to fight to get Tom back, I had a hard time believing Beatrice couldn’t get him back for the reasons stated. Since the custody of Tom was such an important part of this story, I do feel it could’ve been explored a little more, particularly to show the breakdown in the relationships between the two families which obviously became very bitter. The last few chapters seem very rushed as a result which was a pity.