Dora Damage is the wife of a lesser-known bookbinder in Ivy-street in London. Her husband suffers from rheumatism, and her daughter has epilepsy, also known as the Falling Sickness. When Peter Damage becomes to sick to continue with his work, Dora finds herself taking over the business, and she takes on a client who wants her to bind copies of salacious literature. Dora becomes acquainted with the client's wife, who enlists Dora's help in finding a job at the bindery for an American slave named Din.
I was on the fence about this book. On one hand, I love the atmospheric setting; London in the 1850s and `60s is a great place to escape to when reading historical fiction. And although the characters are well-defined, that's not necessarily a good thing; some of the characters descend into being stereotypes (the silly, empty-headed noblewoman, the cardboard cutout villain, or the fallen woman-turned maid-of-all-work). The dialogue of the African-Americans didn't ring true, either.
The plot of the book requires the reader to suspend their sense of disbelief, too (one example is the character of Sylvia, who seemed to drop her old life in Berkeley Square at an astonishing speed, later taking on lovers with blatant disregard for what might happen). I thought the author cheapened the book a bit by including the romance part. And I could see the ending coming from a mile away. But the book's strength is recreating a time period that's long-gone; Victorian London is described in painstaking detail. I also enjoyed Starling's descriptions of the art of bookbinding.