October 1, 2022
Lauren Belfer
Ballantine Books
Historical Fiction / Mystery
Hardcover, 397 pages
“Exquisitely illuminated.”

"masterful, riveting, and atmospheric”
-Alka Joshi
How many lives can you imagine yourself living?”
Or so Hannah Larson wonders. When an uncle falls ill, Hannah and her young son, Nicky, decide to join him for the summer at Ashton Hall, a historic manor house outside Cambridge, England. Hannah gave up her academic career to raise her beloved child —Nicky is neurodivergent and experiences the world differently from others—and she's grateful to escape her life in New York City, where her marriage has been upended by a devastating betrayal.
Soon after their arrival, ever-curious Nicky finds the skeletal remains of a woman who had been walled into a forgotten part of the manor, and Hannah is pulled into an all-consuming quest for answers. Working from clues in centuries-old ledgers and the personal papers of the long-departed family, Hannah begins to recreate the Ashton Hall of the Elizabethan era in all its color and conflict. As the secrets of her own life begin to unravel, and the rewards and complications of being Nicky's mother come into focus, Hannah realizes that Ashton Hall’s women had lives not so different from her own. She confronts what women throughout history have had to do to control their own destinies and protect their children.
Dear Reader,

Welcome to the world of Ashton Hall!

The idea for Ashton Hall first struck me when I was in my twenties. I was invited to stay at Blickling Hall, a National Trust historic mansion in Norfolk, England, constructed in the early 1600s. Surprisingly, an acquaintance of mine was renting an apartment there, and I felt beyond lucky to receive the invitation. English history had always fascinated me, and I’d nurtured a dream that someday I would live in England.
At Blickling, pictured here, I toured the gorgeous gardens and the magnificent rooms that were open to the public. I also explored the private areas of the house, the back hallways, and the attics, accessible to me after visiting hours. As I made my way through the rambling, shadowed corridors and the old nurseries and storage rooms, walking deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the past, ideas came into my mind for a novel. I made some notes, but I didn’t begin writing. Other projects were demanding my attention, including life itself as, after my stay at Blickling, I got married and became a mother.

Years later, when I’d published two novels and was completing a third, and my son was grown, my husband was invited to spend an academic term at an institute affiliated with Cambridge University. One afternoon as I wandered the narrow, evocative streets of Cambridge, contemplating ideas for my next novel—suddenly I knew: I’d rename Blickling Hall, move it to the Cambridge outskirts, and set the story there. The main characters came to me in a flash, people that I cared about deeply, especially Hannah, struggling to puzzle out her future with her beloved, neurodivergent son, Nicky, after a devastating discovery. Ashton Hall, I realized, would be a very contemporary novel in a rich historical setting, a novel that would touch on themes of motherhood, neurodiversity, marriage, and fidelity. 

And so, at last, I was ready to begin writing.

Warm regards,

Book Club Menu and Recipe
Ashton Hall is set in a stately historic home on the outskirts of Cambridge, England, a setting that provides many opportunities for exploring English cuisine. I love English food. When people complain about it, I just don’t understand! In the novel, young Nicky becomes especially focused on scones, crumpets, gingerbread, and biscuits—what the English call cookies—reflecting my own culinary obsessions. Nicky enjoys these treats on a daily basis, courtesy of the bakers at Ashton Hall’s café, who indulge him.
Any Ashton Hall book club meeting should include scones with clotted cream and jam. The British are constantly debating whether the clotted cream or the jam should go on the scone first. When I lived in England, I was drawn into countless discussions about this during afternoon tea with English friends, and the question is discussed in the novel when Hannah meets her American friend Lizzie at the Orchard Tea Garden in Grantchester. After extensive taste-testing of my own, I have a firm opinion on the question, but I don’t want to tell you until you’ve had a chance to experiment!
Enjoy this Fruit Scones recipe from the National Trust, an organization that protects British historic homes. Their website offers recipes, sweet and savory, and this version of their scones, with currants and chopped dried apricots, is my favorite.
Here is a menu for my ideal Ashton Hall-inspired dinner.

Drinks with Elderflower: The British have great affection for drinks made with elderflower.

Katherine Cresham, my fictional lady of the manor in the 16th century, studies herbal medicine and acts as an informal physician for her family and community. Elderflower is said to relieve symptoms of the common cold and influenza—although this is not scientifically proven.

I like to add a dash of Elderflower syrup to fizzy water to create a light, flavorful, non-alcoholic beverage. Others might enjoy an elderflower wine spritzer or cocktails with St. Germain, an elderflower liqueur.

Coronation Chicken in Jacket Potatoes: One of my favorite English dishes is cold Coronation Chicken, created in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, served in a hot jacket potato, which Americans call a baked potato. The English love jacket potatoes and use a variety of fillings. I first enjoyed this astonishingly delicious combination at the café of the National Trust’s Oxburgh Hall while researching the novel. 

Coronation chicken is a marvelous chopped or shredded cold chicken salad that includes curry, raisins, chopped apricots, chutney, jam, and sometimes grapes, chopped apples, and slivered almonds. There are many variations, and it's a recipe you can have fun with. In addition to being an excellent filling for a jacket potato, it can be served as a sandwich, or dressed up as an entrée and presented atop a salad for dinner, which is how I often enjoy it at home. Depending on the season, I add sliced nectarines, cut cherries, chopped walnuts, chopped celery, sliced carrots, and green or red peppers. Add anything you like.

Homemade Strawberry ice cream with shortbread cookies: Homemade strawberry ice cream is an English summer day transformed into … ice cream. In Ashton Hall, Christopher begins the family tradition of enjoying strawberry ice cream for breakfast, and Hannah, Nicky, and Rafe join him. Ice cream for breakfast isn't the norm, so I’m including it as a dessert. Plus, if you’ve experimented with fruit scones, jam, and clotted cream as an appetizer, a lighter dessert might be preferable! You can add some shortbread cookies – shortbread biscuits if you want to be English about it – for a delightful conclusion to your meal.

-Lauren Belfer

Beverages: Drinks with Elderflower Syrup or Liqueur

Main course: Coronation Chicken with Jacket Potatoes

Dessert: Homemade Strawberry Ice Cream with Shortbread Cookies
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