It is 1721 and young Adam Hanaway, devastated by his father's sudden death, leaves England to seek his fortune in Lisbon, where his uncle is a successful merchant. But almost nothing turns out as Adam planned. His family's welcome is cool, and Adam's rise to the top is thwarted by Bartolomeu Gomes, his uncle's treacherous clerk. As Adam attempts to overcome these obstacles he is handicapped by a certain personal trait. Not, he insists, that he is a coward exactly, but he is inclined to boldly put himself in dangerous situations and then at the last minute run away from them; hence the nickname given to him by friends who had observed this failing once too often.
While Adam's mother and sisters wait in England for him to rescue them from poverty, Adam is preoccupied with more compelling women: the beautiful, older half-Portuguese lady Maria Beatriz Hutchinson; the spoiled, rich Gabriella Lowther; and his charming young cousin Nancy. But Adam commits a social faux pas so severe he forever ruins his chances for making a good match, yet no one dares tell him what he has done wrong!
Adam certainly has a lot to learn. The Inquisition is in control of Portugal, and those who befriend Adam may not be who they seem to be. He catches glimpses of things he does not understand, he is innocent enough to be horrified by things others take for granted, and he is swept up in a struggle that will require him to come into his manhood: the struggle between wickedness and humanity. It seems Adam will never find his way to success, to love, or to peace with the life fate has given him.
"In the tradition of Fielding and Dickens, a pleasant story about a young man trying to make a place for himself in the world." (Library Journal)
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