Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review 2015 #3 - Lauren Willig's The Other Daughter

The Other Daughter by Lauren Willig
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: July 21st, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Rachael Woodley has spent seven long years on the continent away from her beloved mother working as a governess. Rachael wanted to take a typing course and work as a secretary but her mother thought that was too modern. Perhaps if Rachael had been a secretary she would have gotten to her mother's sickbed in time to be there when she died. Rachael is unmoored by her mother's passing. They had a poor if peaceful life after Rachael's father died and they moved to the little village of Netherwell. But now that life is forever shut to her. The landlord wants Rachael gone, yet where is she to go? In her mother's sickroom she finds something perplexing. It's a clipping from a recent newspaper showing her father. But not her father as she remembers him, but her father as he would be now if he had never died. That isn't possible! Her father died, he's not Lord Ardmore, the man escorting his daughter Olivia, but a botanist who died an ocean away. But it looks like him... and she can't let it drop. Going to her only relative, her cousin David, she learns that it is indeed her father in the clipping. He has another life and she is nothing more than a by-blow. David asks his friend, the gossip columnist Simon Montfort, to escort the by now distraught Rachael to her train. Instead Rachael and Simon concoct an elaborate plan wherein Rachael will infiltrate the ranks of the Bright Young Things as a Vera Merton in order to accost her wayward father. But things rarely go as planned and soon the glittering world Rachael has been thrust into is a welcome distraction from the truth of her life which she would sooner forget.

Having spent the better part of the last year re-reading Lauren's oeuvre, I think I'm uniquely qualified to praise her third stand-alone. While I won't say it's my favorite of her books, that would be too hard to choose, I will unreservedly say that I think The Other Daughter is Lauren's most accomplished book to date. While I was one of Lauren's readers championing her use of a modern framing device in her Pink Carnation series, I think that carrying this device into her non-Pink books had made the these new books feel too much like the rest of her writing. While there are many authors who have never broken free of this convention, Kate Morton comes to mind, I feel that this framing had become a crutch for Lauren and was holding her back. By getting ride of this prop she has freed herself to concentrate all her energy on the one story. This made her narrative stronger and gave her the ability to have more depth, insight, and heart. I'm not trying to denigrate her other books, which I love, but sometimes a story is best served by just living in the moment and not thinking about what the future holds. Often a modern narrator limits the ability of the storytelling by being the definitive end point. The story must end in such and such a way because we've seen the future. Sometimes not knowing, sometimes having the happily ever after be a ship sailing off into the sunset is what a story needs, instead of ancestors picking over the past.

The 1920s have always fascinated me, but as for the literature of the time and the people who characterized this bright, young, and lost generation, my wheelhouse was limited to those in the Mitford circle, thus including Evelyn Waugh and his cronies. Having spent "Jazzy July" reading the books that sparked Lauren's imagination I now have this new insight into the 1920s and its trailblazers. What is wonderful about Lauren is she knows her history and knows when to tweak it. But she also knows how to artfully drop in a cameo or two without having it overpower the narrative. Brian Howard, Evelyn Waugh, even Tallulah Bankhead make amusing appearances, but they are limited to fully realized furniture. They add to the experience but never take over the plot. But more than that, they also don't feel gratuitous. Sometimes a historical cameo can feel trite. Here's Tesla just because I wanted Tesla to wander in. Lauren over the years has developed a knack for just how the historical cameo should work in her writing, and I can think of no better example than here. The pinnacle of her achievement is at the famous Impersonation Party of 1927, where people all came as each other. Not only do we get the cameos, but the swirling whirling world that Rachel has been moving in is captured perfectly in this one scene that while historically accurate could also be straight out of Alice in Wonderland. 

Reading so many books of this period makes you realize the flaw in this generation. They burned bright and fast and if someone was left by the wayside, well, they burned out and were forgotten. There was a pain that was masked and glossed over. The majority of these people were too young for the Great War, but they lived ever in it's shadows. Instead of acknowledging this pain, instead of self-analysis, they just partied harder and louder. I can think of no better example then the two startling deaths that happen in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies. Two characters die, rather horrifically, one by his own hand, and never once do the characters mourn. They just party on. This, more than anything, made it hard for me to connect to some of the books. I am not callous. If someone dies, even in fiction, they should make an impact. And not to put too fine a point on it, Evelyn's work was nothing more then writing what he saw, so those deaths did happen, that callousness did exist. And that's what makes The Other Daughter so much more. Comparing Lauren's book to the literature of the day you see the depth and insight, you see that Lauren isn't masking the pain, she is exploring it. Simon suffered horribly during the war and his unburdening himself to Rachel is such a real and true connection in a time of shallow characters that you connect to these characters and this book in a way you never could to other books of that period. Lauren has taken a shallow world and made it lush and dimensional.

Looking to the zeitgeist of the 20s I can think of no better way to sum up this generation then by saying these are people who have never grown up. They haven't and won't take on responsibility and therefore live in a suspended childhood. Waugh chose a quote from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There to begin Vile Bodies. Though Waugh's reason for choosing it had more to do with the logic of the set he found himself it. The nonsensical parties, the backward logic, that is what Waugh saw in this book. But I dearly hope that he was aware of the other implications this quote gives, that of people forever trapped in childhood. Lauren expands on this other aspect of this generation not just by quoting Carroll, but by bringing in other fairy tales and children's stories. "Hansel and Gretel" is the fairy tale that is most alluded to. This story is not only appropriate for the Bright Young People, but for Rachel as well. Hansel and Gretel were set loose in the wilderness by their father and wicked stepmother because of the poverty they found themselves in. Before Rachel has all the facts of her situation this is exactly how she views her life as she now knows it. She was abandoned for money. Her father unceremoniously tossed her aside to get the better wife with the rich coffers and the two perfect heirs. You can see the appeal to Rachel to go back to a time when she didn't know the truth, back to a childhood of happiness. That is why she is able to slip in among the Bright Young People so well, she has the same desires, but in the end knows she must grow up.

Much like Lauren's previous stand-alone, That Summer, The Other Daughter is about finding your place in the world, a place to belong. Your family isn't necessarily the one you are born with but the one you find. Rachel's childhood, while missing a father, wasn't sad, she made a family in her small town with the Vicar and his daughter Alice. But on discovering what she knew to be a lie Rachael needs to build a new life for herself. She needs to find her new family, and much of that is tied up with Simon. Simon is a refreshing hero. For once I was very happy not to have access to his inner workings. I didn't want to know what he thought, I liked him as a little bit of an enigma. He has a past that must be uncovered so that he can grow and be willing to return to his family. Because the truth about families are they are messy. No one is perfect, as we see with Rachel, she wants revenge, she wants to hurt her father, even though she knows it's wrong. As we work through this with her we see that she is building the future she will inhabit. She inspires Simon to fix his life and then there's a place for her there. I don't think it's so much the shock of her father being alive that jars Rachael, it's that she had her place in the world and this knowledge changes that. She must struggle through this new information to find the place where she now belongs. We all struggle to find that place. The greatest thing fiction can do is show us that this is possible.


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