The Passing Bells: Book One of the Greville Family Saga, by Philip Rock – A Review

The Passing Bells, by  Philip Rock (2012)I love a good mystery. I just didn’t know that I would be so personally engaged in one for over thirty years.

In 1980, a read a book about an aristocratic English family during WWI that I absolutely adored. I was so enthusiastic about it that I promptly loaned it to my best friend who never thought of it again until about a year later when I asked for it back. She had no idea where my copy was. I was devastated. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to write down the title or author. I could only remember that bell was in the title.

Decades passed and the book never left my list of “to find titles.” When Internet search engines and online used book stores became available to me I searched again to no avail. Last month I was perusing the new release table at Barnes & Noble and a book title jumped out at me. The Passing Bells sounded vaguely familiar so I read the back description and checked the copyright date. “Originally published in 1978.” I stood and stared at the cover in stunned silence. I had found it again. It was a book miracle.

I immediately download a copy to my NOOK and commenced reading. After a long and unyielding quest I wondered if time had romanticized my memory. Had The Passing Bells become my Holy Book Grail?

The summer of 1914 will mark the last days of a privileged way of life for many English aristocrats and the working class who served them. Political unrest is looming on the continent, but at Abingdon Pryory, the palatial grand manor house of the Greville family in Surrey, the pleasures of the ruling class continue as parties, dances and romances are in full swing. The lord of the manor, Anthony Greville, 9th earl of Stanmore rides his favorite hunter Jupiter through his vast estate while his wife Hanna Rilke Greville, Countess Stanmore, plans the debut season in London of their beautiful young daughter Alexandria and worries about her eldest son Charles, whose studies at Cambridge and determination to marry Lydia Foxe, a wealthy local girl with no family connections are foremost on her mind. Up for a weekend in the country are family friends Captain Fenton Wood-Lacy of the Coldstream Guards, hard up for cash and seeking a bride, and the eccentric wife of the Marquees of Dexford and her dowdy youngest daughter Winifred hoping to spark a romance with the heir. Interestingly, Hanna’s American nephew Martin Rilke, a young journalist from Chicago, arrives for a summer holiday and we see this truly English family from a new perspective.

Downstairs there is an army of servants maintaining the ancient estate and the lives of their upstairs employer in grand style. A new maid Ivy Thaxton is learning the ropes in the hierarchy of the servant class while chauffeur Jamie Ross tinkers with Rolls Royce engines and dreams of submitting patents of his designs.

The tug and pull of the family dynamics soon expands to a wider field with the outbreak of WWI. We travel to northern France with Captain Wood-Lacy with his battalion and Martin Rilke as a newspaper reporter and witness the chaotic beginnings of the war and the devastating losses at Ypres. At home, the Greville’s  neighbor, wealthy businessman Archie Foxe, uses his food empire and knowledge of distribution to aid the war effort becoming even wealthier. As all the young men are enlisted for King and Country, and the young women are employed in the cities, the staff at Abingdon Pryory dwindles down to a skeleton crew. The ladies do their part and daughter Alexandria and housemaid Ivy enlist in the women’s nursing units.

The narrative covers between 1914-1920, and we are witness to more warfare with the soldier Charles Greville and reporter Martin Rilke who witness the massive military blunders and tragic loss of thousands of lives at Gallipoli in Turkey and through the balance of the war. The effect on the home front by those who must bear the devastating personal losses and changes to a way of aristocratic life that will never be again is equally as compelling and heart wrenching. Even with all the destruction of life, family and country there is hope and romance for a few of the main characters.

Philip Rock is a fabulous writer. His screenwriting skills are wholly apparent on every page. He moves the story swiftly on with a directorial eye by including just enough fact and emotion to keep you glued to the page and engaged at every moment without looking back. Even though there are many characters and plot lines running concurrently I was able to keep up and enjoy all the great historical detail and the amazing characters that he developed. My favorites were Fenton and Martin; both men of honor and integrity who represented outsiders to the Greville family whose objective perspectives were similar to narrator Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

I am happy to say that my melancholy sentiments might have clouded my judgment just a tad while re-reading, but after 30 plus years, it was all that I remembered and more—a book to cherish and read again. Intriguing and intoxicating, The Passing Bells is a future American classic that I encourage anyone interested in historical fiction and first rate storytelling to read immediately. I am looking forward to the next two books in this trilogy: Circles of Time and A Future Arrived. I hope you will return here to read my next two reviews of the series on March 09 and April 06, 2013.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Passing Bells: Book One of The Greville Family Saga, by Philip Rock
William Morrow (2012)
Trade paperback (544) pages
ISBN: 978-0062229311

© 2013 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – A Review

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2009)Long on my TBR (to be read) pile, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had so many intriguing factors in its favor that I could not put it off any longer. Firstly, I cannot tell you how many of my customers come in searching for this novel even two years after publication. It was on the bestseller list for over a year and is a book group favorite. Secondly, it takes place during and after WWII, one of my favorite historical periods. And thirdly, it is filled with literary references. The puzzling bit is that it is written in epistolary format!

Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.” Isola Pribby, page 53

Yes, an entire novel written as a collection of letters. A very popular style in the mid seventeenth-century, the epistolary novel was utilized by the venerable Samuel Richardson, no less, in his bestselling novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1749). This format has its challenges – like characters not being able to interface with each other directly and react in the moment.  Jane Austen discovered this dilemma after writing Lady Susan in 1795, and the first drafts of Elinor and Marianne (later Sense and Sensibility) and First Impressions (later Pride and Prejudice). The latter two were rewritten into the third-person omniscient style that she is now famous for. Lady Susan remains unchanged, and for those who have read it, it is quite charming but not as accessible to modern readers as her later works. I was very curious to see how co-authors Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows could pull off a novel written in letters and why readers were clamoring to buy it.

Sophie – what is the matter with me? Am I too particular? I don’t want to be married just to be married. I can’t think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can’t talk to, or worse, someone I can’t be silent with.” Juliet Ashton, page 8

In 1946 post war England, our heroine and unmarried thirty-something Juliet Ashton is ready to move on from her comedic war-time newspaper column to more serious fare. Interested in writing a novel, she is searching for the inspiration for a new story. Living in bombed out London she has few personal connections that are still alive. Her parents and brother are dead, and besides her agent Sidney and his sister Sophie, she has few friends and only one suitor, the “great catch,” the wealthy and imposing American publishing heir Markham V. Reynolds, Jr. who woos a woman who has lived for five years on war ratios with champagne, lobster and dancing at the Savoy. Heady stuff.

I wonder how the book got to Guernsey. Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.” From Dawsey Adams, page 10

Juliet is pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from one of her readers, Dawsey Adams, a farmer on Guernsey Island who is now the owner of a used book by Charles Lamb with her name inscribed on the flyleaf. They strike up a correspondence and she learns about his co-founding of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, an ad hock group first formed by residents to fool the Nazi’s into allowing after curfew movements during the German occupation of the island. Later, the book group would become the axis in their lives; both for fellowship and intellectual nourishment; building friendships and, changing perspectives. She was intrigued by his descriptions of the society’s eccentric members and activities and welcomes correspondence from them. What unfolds is a truly remarkable tale. As the society members retell firsthand accounts of their challenges and tragedies during their islands Nazi occupation, Juliet is drawn into their stories and feels that it would make a great subject for her next book. Her eventual visit to the island will change her life forever.

We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.” Eben Ramsey, page 64

At times the epistolary format from twenty different voices had its limitations, but the authors overcome the challenge of characters not being able to talk to each other in real-time by supplying detailed accounts and engaging stories with humorous undertones. The narrative is primarily told through the viewpoint of Juliet, but the heart of the story is Guernsey resident twenty-something Elizabeth McKenna, co-founder of the Literary Society and later prisoner of war in Germany. Many of the anecdotal reminiscences told by the residents circle back to Elizabeth’s life, her brave heroism during their horrendous occupation and how her fellowhip and honor affected her friends, residents and concentration camp inmates.

After all, what’s good enough for Austen ought to be good enough for anyone.” Juliet Ashton, page 274

The ongoing glimmer of hope of romance for our heroine Juliet kept me intrigued, like a cat watching a mouse, but it was not the main focus of this novel and I found its dénouement predictable and mildly satisfying. The tragedy, and this is a war-time tale with some troubling and gruesome bits, is offset by occasional humor, the joy of literature as a tonic especially during the worst of times, and the resilience of the human spirit. As many classic authors are mentioned and discussed: Lamb, Dickens, Bronte, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Wilde, I was quite pleased that Jane Austen, my favorite author, was given her due deference and place of honor as the final to be discussed and her philosophies entrenched on the last page. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was a delightful exploration of strength, compassion, enduring friendships, and the irrepressible spirit of the British people during WWII. I enjoyed it greatly.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Random House (2009)
Trade paperback (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0385341004

© 2007-2010, Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose