The story concerns Elizabeth, who at age sixteen is sent from Scotland to Australia to marry a cousin twenty years her senior, one who has made a fortune for himself in mining and engineering. She takes an instant dislike to him, which carries over to their sex life. Her dislike of sex is so extreme that I wondered, for a short time, if McCullough was going to deal with the matter of lesbianism in the late 19th century. That would have been interesting, at least. Instead Elizabeth spends ten years bearing two daughters, learning how to spend money, and making friends with her husband’s business partner and long-time lover, Ruby, all the while avoiding him. Alex is a man of his place and time — less than enlightened, fixed in his ideas, controlling. He plans for his first daughter (who is speaking, unbelievably, in complex sentences with subordinate clauses at age eleven months) to marry Ruby’s son by a Chinese prince when he (Lee) comes back from being educated in England.
The fact that Elizabeth and Lee will fall in love is telegraphed early and often, and thus the story has to devolve into a parody of itself. Which is really too bad. I had hopes for this novel, but I found myself speed reading to get it over with. I have given it one star because McCullough does do her research, as always, and provides great period detail.