Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book Review - Trisha Ashley's A Winter's Tale

A Winter's Tale by Trish Ashley
Published by: Avon
Publication Date: November 17th, 2008
Format: Paperback, 405 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Sophy Winter spent her formative years living in her family's stately home, Winter's End, until she was one day whisked away by her hippie mother without a backward glance. Her life then took on an itinerant feel, never really settling down until she got married and got pregnant. The pregnancy scared the husband off and she made do as a single mother working in great estates like the one she grew up in. Her daughter is now all grown up and teaching in Japan and Sophy is at loose ends, having lost her job and her home in a matter of minutes. That's when the miracle happens; she inherits Winter's End. A cousin she never knew about, Jack, has come to tell her of her good fortune and to offer to buy the house from her. He explains that Winter's End isn't in the best of shape, her grandfather funneled all the money into the restoration of the gardens at the expense of the house. Therefore Jack's solution would solve Sophy's money problems and sooth the wounds inflicted on Jack when he found out he only inherited the title. It's win win. But when Sophy arrives home she realizes she could never sell Winter's End, even to family. She doesn't care how desperately she needs to find money for it's upkeep or how upset Jack will be or how cantankerous the gardener Seth is, she only knows that she will find a way to do what is in the best interest of the house. Her home.

Several people over the years have recommended A Winter's Tale to me knowing of my love of grand English estates and chick lit. So the book had made it's way onto my shelves and languished, until this past December when it sounded like just the right read for a cold Christmas day. The thing is, there's not much Christmas in it... yes, Christmas is there, but it's almost an afterthought, the book actually getting it's title from Shakespeare not from being all yule. Yet for my love of country estates this was perfect. It's not so much a fairy tale as other books I've read go, though it would be a dream come true to inherit such a house, it's more a realistic fairy tale if that makes sense. We are given insight into the nuts and bolts of the day to day struggles to keep a grand house running. Basically the more down and dirty reality of owning Downton Abbey. Keeping the staff happy, keeping the house repaired, finding money to keep the restoration of the garden underway. Finding a happy balance between wants and needs. Prioritizing that which must get done. And cleaning. Seriously, the amount of cleaning a place like this takes, well, if you hadn't thought about it before in your fantasies about becoming on heiress, you will now. And not that that's a bad thing. In fact reading all about this minutiae, it gives you a stronger connection to this way of life than if you were to the manor born.

The minutiae is where this book lives. In the purchase of special beeswax for banisters and brushes for paintings. There's a languid feel that makes this book the perfect bedtime read. You slip into bed and you sink into the story that lulls you into a safe world of hard work with wonderful rewards. The pacing for most of the book continues on in this vein. Hundreds of pages of day by day tasks to have it abruptly changed. As Christmas nears the pace is picked up, soon we aren't spending languid days seeing the house brought back to life slowly, we're zooming along until it's later the next year at the happily ever after is thrust upon us. This is where the book kind of lost me. It's weird when the pace is abandoned in favor of some new narrative style. The book lost some of it's charm by changing tempo. I didn't feel as connected to these characters I had spent so much time forging a bond with. I felt like the bond was severed and I was left on the outside looking in as everything came together, but without me. Yes, if Trisha Ashley had continued the narrative style throughout A Winter's Tale might have been a doorstop of a book, but as I've said before and I'll say again, I don't care how long or how short a book is, it should be exactly as long as it takes to tell the story and do it justice. This book needs a little of the justice that came Jack's way.

Speaking of Jack. He is the major thorn in my side in this book. He is sleazy and scheming yet everyone thinks he's God's gift and why not let Jack have the house? He couldn't possibly do something underhanded, insert ominous music here. I give credit to Sophy that she stays the course, but there is too much of her waffling. Too many times she questions herself and doesn't stand up to Jack. So while Jack is the villain of the piece, with his dirty deals and his desperate ways, the main problem I have is that he illuminates the flaws of our heroine. Sophy is so strong of will and motivated by hard work I find it hard to believe that she'd buy any line coming out of Jack's mouth, no matter how seductive and silken. I mean, how can she be so naive? She just lost her job and her home because of a scheming relative of her employer and here she is in a similar situation and yet she's all, oh Jack, you're so pretty, you could never love frumpy me with my frizzy hair. Gaw. Just no. I know it's a staple of chick lit to have the to go to be true bad boy and the brooding good boy with the befuddled heroine in the middle not knowing what to do, but seriously? Sophy is so much stronger than the average Bridget Jones that I am baffled that she didn't call shenanigans sooner.

What sets this book apart from the run of the mill chick lit or Downtonesque book is the olde thyme stuff, IE Shakespeare! I admit about a few pages in I should have gotten that the title was from Shakespeare, given all the references in the text, but sometimes I'm not quite on the ball and as I mentioned before I seriously thought this was a Christmas book. This Shakespearean element also elevates the book to a kind of historical fiction chick lit fusion that is fun for fans of both genres. But the downside is that I think you'd have to be somewhat to fairly knowledgeable about Shakespeare and his life to get the personal references peppered throughout the story. The extracts from Alys Blezzard's journal are purposefully very cryptic and written for those with knowledge of the Bard. Therefore this book can be read on two levels, the plain old chick lit HEA, and the fusion level. Personally, if I was only reading it on the chick lit level without my knowledge of Shakespeare, I'm not sure I would have been as drawn into the book. It's the mystery woven throughout about Alys being dark of complexion, that connects with Shakespeare's sonnets to "The Dark Lady." The Shakespeare angle adds so much that without it I just don't know if it would work.

Yet that "Dark Lady" Alys is still a questionable addition to the book in my mind. Not her connection with Shakespeare, nothing like that. It's her "other" qualities. IE, the magic of it all. By bringing in a paranormal aspect I think it might be stretching the narrative's credulity to it's breaking point. The Shakespeare secret, the history of the family and the house, that's all well and good, but the magic? I could see it if there were just ghosts and Alys having been condemned as a witch, because well, any smart woman was a witch back then, but that magic... That tangible real magic that gives Sophy insight and visions. It's just a step too far. It's almost like this book so wanted to be everything that it threw in everything and the kitchen sink and sometimes enough is enough. Sometimes being descended from Shakespeare is a big enough twist. Sometimes getting your HEA is enough. And sometimes just saving your family estate is enough. There doesn't need to be "real" magic too. Because isn't everything else magical enough? Apparently not according to Trisha Ashley. But then again, some people just don't know where to draw the line, like Sophy with her "relationship" with Jack.


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