That Summer: A Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

From the desk of Christina Boyd:That Summer, by Lauren Willig (2014 )

After a successful divergence from her Napoleonic spy romances of the Pink Carnation series with the post-Edwardian The Ashford Affair, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig again embarks on another stand-alone narrative. Entangling one generation with the past is Willig’s trademark, and That Summer is of modern day Julia Conley as well as her ancestors in 1849.

In 2009, motherless Julia inherits an old family house in England from a great Aunt Regina Ashe, a woman she cannot even recall. One of the recently unemployed in the recession, she travels from New York City to Herne Hill, a district south of London, to view her inheritance and unload it as quickly as possible. Upon arrival, she meets her exceedingly obliging and maybe even presumptuous cousin, Natalie, who eagerly volunteers to help sort the old mansion and later even brings along the fine Nicholas Dorrington, if somewhat taciturn antiques dealer, to value the lot. Although they jest concerning hidden treasures, Julia cannot but wonder if in fact there might be some sort of riches her relations hope to unearth beneath the years of dust, dank oddments and papers. But what she had not expected was to exhume memories of her childhood.

Julia’s hand was on the knob of the door before she realized that she had retreated, step by step, ready to duck out and shut the door. She laughed shakily. Great. Metaphor made action. Her English professors in college would have loved that. Shut the door and shut the door. Just like she had been shutting the door all these years. Julia’s knuckles were white against the old brass doorknob. This was insane. Insane. What was she so afraid of? What was she so afraid of remembering? Maybe she was just afraid she would miss her. Her mother.” (87)

In 1849, Imogene Grantham has been married to the much older Arthur, collector of antiquities and artifacts, for nearly a decade. And though she naively thought she was marrying for love, it was not long before she realized she was to be just another showpiece to adorn his home. Oddly, Arthur’s late wife’s sister, a Miss Jane Cooper, a bitter and suspicious woman, continues to manage the house. A lonely life to be sure, with Imogene’s only pleasure deriving from the adoration of Evie, her step-daughter. When three pre-Raphaelite artists come to admire Grantham’s collection, an unsuspecting Imogene is observed by the reticent Gavin Thorne.

Nor was Mrs. Grantham in Augustus’s style. He liked pink and white society beauties. If Miss Cooper was a Rembrandt sketch of a purse-lipped Dutch housewife and Miss Evangeline Grantham a Dresden shepherdess, all pink and white, and yellow curls, Mrs. Grantham was something else, entirely. In the candlelight she was ebony and ivory, the dark waves of her hair accentuating the strong bones of her face.” (59-60)

Nevertheless, Imogene was all too aware of the attentions Mr. Augustus Fotheringay-Vaughn bestowed upon the 16 year old Evangeline. (Vaughn? Vaughn! Surely not the “spawn of Vaughn”—from Willig’s The Pink Carnation series? Oh, heaven help the artless heiress.)

As Julia discovers a pre-Raphaelite painting concealed behind a false wall in an armoire—and as she and Nick sift through the house for more clues as to authenticity, why the piece was secreted away, and why the likeness between the woman in this Tristan and Isolde scene to that of the formal yet forlorn portrait prominently displayed in the drawing room—a developing magnetism between the two cannot be denied. Still, Nick is an art dealer and Natalie, who seems to have her eyes on Nick, puts Julia on her guard.

Lauren Willig has painted lush, colorful characters and layered historical details, touches of mystery and romance with a deft brush that made me yearn for more. A masterful work of art, That Summer is sure to become this summer’s Must Read in women’s fiction.

5 out of 5 Stars

That Summer: A Novel, by Lauren Willig
St. Martin’s Press (2014)
Hardcover (352) pages
ISBN: 978-1250014504

Cover image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press © 2014; text Christina Boyd © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Havisham: A Novel, by Ronald Frame – A Review

Havisham A Novel by Ronald Frame 2013 x 200Dear Mr. Frame:

I recently read Havisham, your prequel and retelling of Charles Dickens Great Expectations, one of my favorite Victorian novels. Your choice to expand the back story of minor character Miss Havisham, the most infamous misandry in literary history, was brilliant. Jilted at the altar she was humiliated and heartbroken, living the rest of her days in her tattered white wedding dress in the decaying family mansion, Satis House. Few female characters have left such a chilling impression on me. I was eager to discover your interpretation of how her early life formed her personality and set those tragic events into motion.

Dickens gave you a fabulous character to work with. (spoilers ahead) Born in Kent in the late eighteenth-century, Catherine’s mother died in childbirth leaving her father, a wealthy brewer, to dote upon his only child. Using his money to move her up the social ladder she is educated with aristocrats where she learns about literature, art, languages and the first disappointments of love. In London she meets and is wooed by the charismatic Charles Compeyson. Family secrets surface in the form of her dissipated half-brother Arthur, the child of a hidden marriage of her father to their cook. Her ailing father knows his son has no interest in his prospering business and trains his clever young daughter. After his death, the inevitable clash occurs between the siblings over money and power. Challenged as a young woman running a business in a man’s world, Catherine struggles until Charles reappears charming his way into her service and her heart. About two thirds of the way through the novel the events of Great Expectations surface. Charles abandons her on their wedding day and she sinks into depression.

I knew that the devastating jilting at the altar was coming! We all did. When it happened, I was anticipating a full-blown emotional Armageddon—like Jane Austen’s heroine Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility: bed-ridden crying jags, desperate letter writing to her lover, senseless walking in the rain, near-death illness, and miraculous survival. Some of that happened in Havisham, but not to the degree I anticipated. After all, we knew that Dickens’ Miss Havisham had taken this jilting business far beyond the depths of disappointed hopes that Marianne had plumbed. But why? Why did she choose not to move on—holding on to her anger and rage, becoming bitter and vengeful? It had to be something so startling that it would jar me to my core. I won’t reveal your choices, but when her tepid romance with Charles Compeyson and her reaction to his spurning were not what I expected, I was greatly disappointed. Readers had been waiting 150 years to know the story. Granted it was not Dickens’ narrative, but it could be the next best thing. You had gotten us to this point so admirably that I was inclined to close your book with an angry snap. If I had a white wedding dress, I would be wearing it right now in protest. You have jilted me at the altar of literature.

Do I regret reading your novel? No. Your prose was beautifully crafted and your characterizations entertaining. Would I like to give you some unsolicited advice on being brave enough to take your own narrative over the edge? Yes! After reading numerous Jane Austen-inspired sequels, you can’t play with classic archetypes and then not deliver the goods. While your plot slowly picked up momentum you missed the point. Catherine’s romance with Charles should have been the most compelling relationship in book, yet I was constantly on guard by his questionable behavior and never liked him, let alone loved him. I never understood why she did. That desperate passion between them should have consumed the pages, like Bronte’s Catherine and Heathcliff, making his final choice so shocking, so devastating, so heartbreaking, that we understood why she locked herself away from the world and enacted revenge on Pip through her daughter Estella. So close, yet miles away from the masters of human emotion, Dickens, Bronte and Austen. They would never have made that mistake.

I commend you for your attempt. It is a very tall order to write a prequel of a literary icon. Everyone who has read Great Expectations has their own great expectations for Miss Havisham. Your book exhibits many fine qualities, unfortunately your choices lacked the fire, passion, and emotional depth required to make her psychological tragedy the literary jackpot that we have been waiting for.

3 out of 5 Regency Stars     

Havisham: A Novel, by Ronald Frame
Picador (2013)
Hardcover (368) pages
ISBN: 978-1250037275

Cover image courtesy of Picador (Macmillan Publishing) © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress, © 2014, Austenprose.com

A Fatal Likeness: A Novel, by Lynn Shepherd – A Review

A Fatal Likeness, by Lynn Shepherd 2013 From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

The Young Romantics have inspired hundreds of books, plays, and films over the last two centuries, and there have been many accounts of that famous summer they spent together on Lake Geneva in 1816, when Frankenstein was conceived. But all the same there remain many inexplicable gaps and strange silences…A Fatal Likeness is an attempt to weave a new story between those gaps, and create a narrative to connect those silences” (from the Author’s Note).

For fans of Jane Austen’s virtue-oriented, Christian novels to appreciate how very odd and outrageous some of her contemporaries really were might be as easy as looking at the bevy of bad boys and girls she features in each of her novels. Think of Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, George Wickham and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Captain Tilney and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. These wild youths desperate to break free bear a striking (if superficial) resemblance to some of the most liberally minded literary stars of the late Regency Period–philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, their novelist daughter Mary Shelley, her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his fellow poet and friend Lord Byron. Certainly, it was an exciting age of revolution, but every revolution comes with a heavy price. For this circle of geniuses, the price was one untimely death or devastating heartbreak  after another. But why?

In her wonderfully composed and intriguingly plotted novel, A Fatal Likeness, Lynn Shepherd seeks not simply to depict the heavy price paid by Percy and Mary Shelley and their circle of family and friends for their liberal ideals, but to try and make sense of it. Inspired by what primary sources say and do not say, Shepherd weaves a masterful trail of scandalous events that had me loathing in turns both Percy and Mary Shelley. Indeed, at the heart of this story, as in any good mystery novel, is a sinister darkness. The question is whether this darkness is the fruit of hedonistic depravity or psychological madness–and whose depravity or madness?

Enter Charles Maddox, our fictional hero. Maddox, like his celebrated uncle of the same name, is a London detective whose own reputation as a successful sleuth is steadily growing. Although he is well-meaning and determined, he is no saint–he’s sleeping with his cook Molly, a young black woman who cannot speak, and is abusive toward his male servants, especially poor Billy, the surly scapegoat. Maddox is hired by Mary Shelley’s son and daughter-in-law to retrieve papers which may contain damaging information about Percy Shelley. However, the papers are owned by Claire Clairmont–Mary’s stepsister and former rival for her late husband’s affections. It seems that Mary Shelley, widowed and ill, is obsessed with protecting the memory of her late husband and wants total control over the interpretation and telling of his life. And so, with Mary on the one hand and Claire on the other, the unfolding of two versions of Percy Shelley begins. Simply put, it’s a bizarre picture of a man who, although apparently effeminate and sickly, is able to cast a spell on nearly any young lady he encounters, to their doom. Readers are led to believe that Percy is somehow responsible for the suicides of his first wife Harriet Westbrook and his sister-in-law Fanny Imlay, that he may have killed a little girl named Ianthe for whom he had an odd affection, and that he is either being pursued by someone out for revenge or is psychotically making the phantom doppelganger up. Worst of all is the image of Percy Shelley standing over a cradle in the night committing an unthinkable crime. It makes the drama of Frankenstein appear eerily autobiographical.

But is it true? As Maddox frantically follows leads to uncover the evidence, a very different version of events comes to light, a version in which Mary, not Percy, is painted as the cold, manipulative hand orchestrating the various disasters Maddox is attempting to comprehend. Fans of Mary Shelley may cringe at the idea of Percy’s having substantially written Frankenstein, a fact Mary is eager to conceal in this novel, but that’s the least of the crimes she is accused of here. Was it Percy who so unfeelingly persecuted his first wife Harriet, or was it Mary? Was it the murder of his own child that tormented Percy, or was it the shame of a past deed which Mary used, by way of her own children, to cruelly dominate him, until he sought freedom in death? Who, indeed, deserves the epitaph monster?

Shepherd, author of three other literary thrillers including Murder at Mansfield Park re-imagining Mansfield Park, offers readers a delicious, bold, psychological and literary thriller in this excellent fourth novel. She does three important things so perfectly. Firstly, she builds a solid mystery–the kind where readers can’t rest comfortably with what they think they know. Secondly, her characters are fascinating. Charles Maddox is intelligent, insightful, but all too human. Claire Clairmont is seductive and persuasive, while Mary Shelley is aloof and just a touch frightening. And Percy? I’ll let you decide. Lest I forget the supporting cast, who wouldn’t love Nancy, a down-on-her-luck prostitute who probably has more virtue in her than any of the Shelley clan put together? Finally and most important, the prose of this novel is tight and well-constructed. With period novels, there’s always the danger that the language will feel contrived. Shepherd makes an interesting negotiation with the historical context by having her narrator’s voice be contemporary. This allows the modern day narrator to describe historical events in modern terms, leaving much of the “matching” work to fall on dialogue, which Shepherd manages impressively well.

As such, I award this novel five very bright Regency Stars. I look forward to discussing it this fall with the students in my British literature class, all of whom read Frankenstein this summer.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Fatal Likeness: A Novel (Charles Maddox Mysteries), by Lynn Shepherd
Delacorte Press (August 20, 2013)
Hardcover (384) pages
ISBN: 978-0345532442

Cover image courtesy of Delacote Press © 2013; Text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2013, Austenprose.com

To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace – A Review

Image of book cover of To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace (2012)From the desk of Laura A. Wallace. 

Originally published in 1989, this 2012 re-issue of To Marry and English Lord is an attractive trade paperback edition by Workman Publishing. Promoted as “an inspiration for Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes, the screenplay writer who created the series, has been quoted as saying that he was reading this book when approached about writing the series, and that the first character he conceived for it was Cora, Countess of Grantham, an American heiress.

This book has long been on my “to acquire and read” list so I was really looking forward to finally reading it. I found it to be fairly light reading. The chapters are divided up into short sub-headings, sprinkled with lots of side-bar quotations and tid-bits (at least one on every page), and interspersed with little mini-articles on every third or fourth page. Illustrations are copious; decorations are Victorian and Edwardian. Overall it presents a great deal of factual information in a very digestible way.

This is the sort of book that serves as an introduction to a topic, and a launching pad for further research. (It is the type of book that novelists unfortunately use as a primary source, but that is a rant for another time.) It has no footnotes or endnotes, but does have a good selective bibliography which includes a list of period fictional works. The index is good (if imperfect) and there are excellent appendices, including a “Register of American Heiresses” and a “Walking Tour of the American Heiresses’ London” which are handy references.

The text is organized in a loosely chronological way. It begins with the origins of Anglomania (the 1860 U. S. visit of the young Prince of Wales) and the beyond-Almack’s-despotic exclusivity of Old New York “Knickerbocker” society which ruthlessly excluded new money. So the first set of snubbed wives and daughters left New York for Paris and then London in the 1870s, where they scored aristocratic English husbands, got themselves into the Prince of Wales’s social set, and rarely bothered to cross the Atlantic again.

This first set was comparatively small, comprising only about half a dozen women, and it is they who earned the sobriquet “The Buccaneers.” The most famous girl in this first wave was Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill and became the mother of Sir Winston Churchill.

But that was just the tip of the spear of the “American Invasion.” The ranks grew steadily and kept up the pace until the death of Edward VII in 1910, after which it trickled off and ended with World War I. I had not realized, until reading this book, that the invasion was so extensive. There were at least two dozen who married into the peerage itself, and dozens more who married younger sons, baronets, M.P.s, and gentry. The “Register” at the back of the book lists about 115 of them, and this list, of course, cannot be exhaustive.

It was not just their pots of money that made these women so attractive to Englishmen.  Their manners were free, easy, and confident, the complete opposite of those of demure, shy English girls. They were well-educated and very well-dressed, usually by Worth.  They were pretty, too, their very lack of “breeding” apparently considered a bonus by their targets, if not by their mamas (appealing at a genetic level, perhaps?). The Prince of Wales loved them, and where he led, everyone followed.

I did find a few factual errors, an occasional absurd assertion, and a couple of errors in titles usage (of course), but overall the information presented seems solid. I encourage readers to use this book as a spring platform to explore other works, whether Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough’s memoirs, the novels of Wharton, James, and Hardy, or perhaps some of the lesser-known novels of the day. (The latter are featured in a mini-article, but not listed in the bibliography.) The book nicely provides the most general background material to improve enjoyment of the portraits of Sargent (there are hundreds on Wikimedia Commons) or of the costume dramas to which we are all highly addicted.

4 out of 5 Stars

To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace
Workman Publishing (2012)
Trade paperback (403) pages
ISBN: 978-0761171959

Cover image courtesy © Workman Publishing Group; text © 2012 Laura A. Wallace

A Heart for Milton: A Tale from North and South, by Trudy Brasure – A Review

A Heart for Milton, by Trudy Brasure (2011)Review by Kimberly Denny-Ryder

Based on the iconic work of Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, Trudy Brasure’s A Heart For Milton picks up in the middle of the original work, with Margaret, a 19th century unmarried English woman, ready to leave her home soon after the death of her father.  She has finally realized her love for John Thornton, an industrialist and mill owner in their small town of Milton, but fears a relationship between the two will never happen due to her earlier dismissal of him.  In the original tale, they are kept apart, yet in this work, a brave move by Thornton ensures their immediate and happy marriage and settling in Milton.  Brasure then weaves a tale of challenges, twists, and romantic turns that face Margaret and John in their new life together.

When I read Gaskell’s North and South I continually commented to myself about how much I liked the way Gaskell presented both the thoughts of the north and the south of England on the Industrial Revolution and social issues of the time.  The romance took a backseat to the more prevalent storylines of striking mills and labor unions.  I was happy to see Brasure add these differing opinions into A Heart For Milton.  Including these discussions on social issues not only offers the reader insight into what living in 19th century England was like, but it also offers deeper insight into all of the characters in general once one begins to understand the social context of the time.

Brasure’s vision of Thornton was a truly spectacular one.  In the original North and South we know from his interactions with Mrs. Thornton that he is a caring, hardworking man.  From his interactions with Margaret we know him to be a stoic intellectual.  Brasure’s vision of him as a completely besotted husband was wonderful new layer.  This softer side of Thornton, falling in love with Margaret, as well as the beauty of southern England, made the story warming and romantic.  It was wonderful to see the side of him that is wholly mesmerized by his wife.  It was also wonderful to see Margaret not only as a doting wife, but a woman that still stuck to her principles.  Their developing relationship was a worthwhile journey to follow.

The only thing that became a bit repetitive was Thornton and Margaret’s ways of describing each other in their minds.  The adjectives became a bit overused by the end of the novel and I found myself getting agitated.  Other than this, however, I really enjoyed seeing the fleshed out roles of Mr. Bell and Mrs. Thronton.  I was always curious to how Mrs. Thronton would adjust to Margaret being in their lives, considering that she is such a formidable woman.  In all, Brasure’s work was a great fit with the original, dovetailing nicely and giving readers of North and South a great fairytale that they can enjoy for years to come.

4 out of 5 Stars

A Heart for Milton: A Tale from North and South, by Trudy Brasure
CreateSpace (2011)
Trade paperback (398) pages
ISBN: 978-1463683436

Kimberly Denny-Ryder is the owner/moderator of Reflections of a Book Addict, a book blog dedicated to following her journey of reading 100 books a year, while attempting to keep a life! When not reading, Kim can be found volunteering as the co-chair of a 24hr cancer awareness event, as well as an active member of Quinnipiac University’s alumni association.  When not reading or volunteering, Kim can be found at her full-time job working in vehicle funding. She lives with her husband Todd and two cats, Belle and Sebastian, in Connecticut.

© 2012 Kimberly Denny-Ryder, Austenprose