Seventeen-year-old Molly Gibson, the heroine, lives in the fictional town of Hollingford with her widowed father. They are happy together and have a close, warm relationship. But Dr. Gibson feels that Molly ought to have a mother, and so he asks Mrs. Kirkpatrick, a middle-aged widow, to marry him. The new Mrs. Gibson is kind to Molly, but she doesn't understand her, and Molly wishes things could be as they were before. Molly gets on better with her new stepsister, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, but the two girls are very different. Meanwhile, Molly strikes up a friendship with the Hamley family (hey! it rhymes!) of Hamley Hall: the elderly Squire Hamley, his delicate wife, and their two sons, the poetic Osborne and the studious Roger. When Mrs. Hamley dies after a lingering illness, Molly becomes even closer to Squire Hamley; he looks upon her as a daughter. She and Roger also become very close, sharing a love of nature and science.
But then things begin to happen very fast when Molly accidentally discovers Osborne Hamley's deepest secret. To make matters worse, Roger Hamley falls in love with Molly's stepsister Cynthia and proposes to her--just before he leaves for a two-year journey in Africa. Then Molly begins to fear that Cynthia has a secret of her own, involving Mr. Preston, the local land-agent...
I won't tell any more, because I don't want to give away the whole plot, but I will say that it is the kind of story you can't put down. I read it in November 2010, but didn't get around to writing a review until now (shame on me). The characters were so real and vivid, the narrative well-paced and interesting, and the dialogue enchanting. Dr. Gibson, in particular, was extremely funny!
I'd recommend this book for ages twelve and up, and rate it nine out of ten--I withhold the tenth star only because the novel isn't finished! Yup, that's right. Mrs. Gaskell died before she finished writing this, her last book (well, obviously it was her last book). But it is evident how she intended the story to end, and you aren't really left hanging at the last page. I would recommend watching the 1999 BBC miniseries based on the novel, with Justine Waddell and Keeley Hawes. It does a nice job of tying up the loose ends and finishing the story.
This book is in the public domain, so you can find it on Google Books or Project Gutenberg. I also have a copy of it, so if anyone in my area would like to borrow it, please let me know!