This novel is the fictionalised account of botanist Robert Fortune's mid nineteenth century expeditions through China to find tea plants and to do a bit of spying on the side. I found the botanical elements of the story fascinating (a long time ago now, I did a Botany degree!). I can understand totally Robert's botanical obsessions:
It was in the library , in fact, that Robert kept his yellow camellias. The flowers had cuased great excitement when he had found them, or at least, possibly found them., for Robert had boughty the specimens for five dollars and they were untested - the buds were as tight as tiny cricket balls and the prized yellow flowers only a promise as yet unseen. He became quite obsessed, positioning and repositioning the plants each morning so they had the best light of the day. On one occasion when I came into the library, I found him searching with a large magnifying glass around the side of the buds for a mere wisp of yellow.
And how upset is he going to be if the camellias turn out not to be yellow after all?
In this novel Fortune is accompanied on his journey by his sister in law, Mary, a fictional character, who is running away from disgrace. It is perhaps predictable that the two fall in love, but I thought the development of their relationship was beautifully managed (from outright dislike to deep passion). I also thought that both characters developed as individuals through the journey, as they experienced extreme hardship and danger.
The novel is also very insightful about gender relationships and the relations between the UK and China during the time period.
The Secret Mandarin by Sara Sheridan published by Avon, a division of Harper Collins