Ottilie Cartaret is born in London into a family of boys dominated by their genial mother, Ma O'Flaherty. For the first four years of her life, all Ottilie knows is love until, that is, the erring father of the boys, the ever absent Mr O'Flaherty, sends enough money from America for the O'Flahertys to move to what Ma imagines will be rural bliss in Cornwall.
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As Walter Berrisford paints beautiful Katherine Garland, she asks him to put a ladybird on her finger without his knowing why. He is appalled when he discovers that Katherine is a Nazi. The outbreak of war means that her sister Caro and her friend Robyn join the FANYs, while former maids, Betty and Trixie, work in a factory. War brings frantic…
True, St Elcomb is by the sea and in 1950s Britain is certainly rural but, for the O'Flahertys, it is not bliss. Never mind their poverty or the damp cottage which Ma has bought for them, the enmity of the local people is what proves insuperable.
The family unit having been destroyed by Ma's death, Ottilie is adopted by Mr and Mrs Cartaret, a wealthy couple who run the Grand Hotel in St Elcomb. It is to these palatial surroundings that Ottilie is removed, away from her brothers and everything which she loves. Here she becomes pampered and spoilt, not just by her adopted parents but by all the visitors to the hotel, with the exception of their mysterious annual guest whom Ottilie nicknames 'GREY LADY'.
Times however are changing and not just for Ottilie but for the hotel too, and as the regulars to the now decaying hotel die off, the Cartarets find they are unable to adapt to modern ways. That Ottilie becomes their greatest asset and they live to rejoice in the day they adopted her is undoubted, but that Ottilie perhaps sacrifices too much herself to save the Grand is something she soon comes to realize...