Once upon a time, I prowled the shelves of my hometown public library and read armloads of books written before the advent of genre orientation, high concept, sales hook, and tag line marketing. Once upon a time, a book was a book. It might be about characters you liked or felt indifferent to. You might finish it or toss it aside. Still, you knew that the majority of the time, when you opened the cover and began it, you would be exploring a story with some degree of insight and depth. Or, it might be simply magical.
These days, I primarily read genre fiction because I want a plot to go along with intriguing characters and interesting backdrops. At some point in mid-to-late 20th century publishing, a schism developed that tossed “plot-oriented” books into one heap and “character-oriented” books into another. Labels of genre or mainstream were pasted on. Aspiring writers found themselves pushed to join one party or the other, to either pursue the market or to disdain the market.
As a writer, I understand what’s happened to the publishing industry. As a reader, I lament the loss and confusion this division engenders when I just want to lose myself in a good story for a few hours.
From time to time, a yearning comes over me to read a book with style, a book with grace and poise. If that’s all the book has–pretty words strung together lyrically–then it’s similar to sitting down to one’s supper and being served nothing but cake icing. Cloying and empty of nutrition.
This week, I put aside the mysteries I’ve been reading lately and picked up a book bought on impulse. THE HOUSE AT TYNEFORD by Natasha Solomons was published first in England and then here in 2011. My edition proclaims it a New York Times bestseller. Reviewers have lauded it. It’s selling well according to the ranking on amazon.com. The publisher even promises fans of the hit TV series, DOWNTON ABBEY, that they’ll love this book.
With some trepidation–due to my suspicion of such puffery and having been burned innumerable times by the modern literary mainstream crowd–I sat down with TYNEFORD a few days ago.
Well, Solomons can do the pretty writing that I miss. Her depictions of pre-war Vienna deliver exquisite word pictures. The poignant party given by the protagonist’s parents, when all the Jewish guests show up wearing somber coats and hats to cloak themselves in the streets and then cast off their outerwear to display magnificent silk gowns and all the jewels they own, is a sublime set-piece. The characters of Anna and Julian cast their spell. They make you want to meet them, to be a part of their circle, to attend one of Anna’s concerts so you can hear her sing.
The concept of the book offers exactly the kind of contrast that I enjoy. A pampered Jewish girl is sent to England just before WWII for safety. The only way she can get a visa is to accept a job as a parlor-maid at a stately country house. The first third of the book deals with Elise doing just that. Having arrived with the family jewels sewn into her dress hem, she must scramble to learn her duties as a servant.
The middle of the book loses momentum. The storyline is a simple one, a bit too simple to sustain the mid-portion of a novel. It’s predictable as well. That predictability combined with a dawdling pace makes this section of the book seem interminable. I cared enough about Elise, the old butler Wrexham, and Mr. Rivers to keep going. Barely. I wanted to know whether the village and the country house would survive the war. Elise’s main concerns, however, falter here. The author drops a number of foreshadowing hints in the vein of Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA, but not as effectively.
The ending, so slow in coming, offers no surprises–except to the protagonist. Elise is the last to know, whereas I saw the outcome from the beginning. That made me rather impatient with her.
I realize that for process-oriented readers, there’s no problem. I’m the kind of reader that’s looking to the outcome, the finale. (I’m the person who had to be dragged, protesting all the way, to a movie theater to see James Cameron’s TITANIC because I knew how it was going to end.)
Then, after such a leisurely pace through the majority of Solomons’s book, there’s a hasty little wrap-up, a tacked-on denouement of hope and affirmation. It reminds me of the reunion between sisters depicted in Amy Tan’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB, except the encounter barely happens before we’re whisked on to the next thing Solomons wants us to see. The emotional satisfaction that this reunion should provide is sacrificed in the cause of tossing in everything still left on the author’s checklist.
Generally, I enjoyed the book very much despite its plot shortcomings. I intentionally shut off my inner critic–the one grumbling about plot weaknesses–in order to spend time in this magical English setting. Some reviewers have described the book as “old-fashioned storytelling,” and it does have a flavor of older novels. I just wish there had been more happening than waiting for something to happen.