Margery Sharp’s The Nutmeg Tree has one of the best opening chapters I’ve read in a long time. When we meet Julia Packett (sometimes, but not really, Mrs. Macdermott), she is in the bath tub. She has been there for over an hour. She won’t come out because there are two men outside who want five pounds or they will repossess her rented furniture. By the end of the chapter, Julia has gotten out of the bath—but only after swindling the two men and a pawnbroker. We also learn in the first chapter that Julia has been summoned to France by a daughter she hasn’t see in about twenty years. Susan needs Julia’s help.
Julia has been called to France to help Susan convince her grandmother and the guardian of her trust to let her marry before she turns 21. Susan has, remarkably, fallen head over heels in love with a barrister. (Well, he’s studying to be a barrister, it turns out. Bryan isn’t too keen, though.) So, Julia uses the last of the money she got from the pawnbroker to make her way from London to rural France, where her daughter is holidaying with Julia’s mother-in-law. We learn more about Julia’s past as she reflects on her history on her way south—at least until she gets caught up in a brief attraction to a trapeze artist. The trapeze artist proposes, but Julia is set on helping her daughter and on trying to be a lady (so that said daughter isn’t ashamed of her).
There isn’t much plot in The Nutmeg Tree. Rather, the bulk of this slim book is a series of hilarious scrapes and errors for Julia. She tries so hard to be a lady, but she can’t help herself sometimes. She cons a man in Aix out of a thousand francs. She lies to almost everyone. She accidentally reveals risqué episodes from her past. But Julia can’t just disappear in embarrassment. She has learned that Bryan is also a liar and a bit of a cheat. As soon as they met, they recognized their “sort.” As if all this wasn’t enough, Julia ends up with her own romance.
I breezed through this book and loved every minute of it. Sharp has a gift for describing people that had me snorting and chuckling all the way through. Julia is a wonderful character. Even though she’s the wrong sort—she tells us this about herself over and over—you can’t help but love her because she’s just so dashed entertaining.
I received a free promotional copy of this book from the publisher.