Saturday, May 12, 2012

The House at Tyneford

by Natasha Solomons, Plume, December 2011

Read this is if you like romance with a great historical setting

The opening chapters of this novel describe the carefree life in Vienna in the 1930s.  Our heroine, Elise Landua is the nineteen year old daughter of an artistic family.  Her mother is a famous opera singer and her father a novelist.  They are Jews.  Recognizing the threat that the Nazi regime represents, Elise’s father works to get them out of Vienna.  Her sister manages a passage to California; her parents await visas to do the same.  Elise at the urging of her parents takes a position as a parlor maid in a manor house in southern England.  So begins the tale.
Elise struggles with her changed circumstances but receives support from both the down stairs servants and the lord of the manor, Christopher Rivers.  In a turn of events that should not surprise even one reader Elise falls in love with Kit, the only son of Mr. Rivers.  War comes and hope for Elise’s parents fades as England struggles in the early years of the war.  Elise’s love affair with Kit is frowned on by the servants but in a response that seems unlikely at best is supported by Kit’s father.  There are some idyllic scenes of manor life that are in sharp contrast to the events of the Dunkirk evacuation and its aftermath.   As with almost all war novels, there is loss; this one is no exception.

This is a World War II novel with an original plot.  I am always fascinated with the almost random circumstances that allowed some Jews to escape the Nazi terror.  I had not read previously that some wealthy Jewish families arranged for their sons and daughters to emigrate on work visas as house servants.  The author does a good job of contrasting the carefree high society life of Vienna with the bleakness and rigidity of the English class system.  The downstairs servants are well drawn and the English desire to maintain normalcy in the face of severe deprivation is depicted.  The plot then moves to a more traditional story line (think Rebecca, Mrs. Miniver, etc.) and if you miss this shift the author actually has the characters attend a movie showing where the feature is Rebecca. 

The writing contains a lot more descriptive paragraphs than I’d find necessary to tell this story.  I skimmed over quite a few.  I had to keep reminding myself that this novel is tagged as historical romance, not a genre I usually read.  I found the ending quite unbelievable but if you recognize that this story was first and foremost a romance, no other ending would do. Read this is if you like romance with a great historical setting.

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

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