Fiercombe Manor by Kate Riordan
Published by: William Morrow
Publication Date: August 11th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 368 Pages
Alice has failed to live up to her mother's expectations. Yes, Alice has a good job, but no gentlemen callers to raise her from typist to wife, the best promotion she could hope for. Maybe if she got a job in a restaurant she could have more opportunities to catch a guy's eye, but Alice likes the prestige of where she works. Alice also has a secret, one that won't be hidden for much longer. There's a reason there are no gentlemen callers, because Alice fell for a married man. A married man who has gotten her pregnant and, in the eyes of her mother, disgraced. Alice's mother's priority is to get her daughter secreted away so that none of their acquaintances will know their shame. To that end she contacts an old friend, Mrs. Jelphs. Mrs. Jelphs is the housekeeper of Fiercombe Manor, a grand old estate in Gloucestershire where the house is kept in ready for a family, the Stantons, that live entirely overseas. Alice can have the baby, give it up for adoption, and return home as though none of this ever happened, with Mrs. Jelphs being fed a line about painful memories due to the sudden death of Alice's non-existent husband for her need to convalesce in the country. This plan could have worked perfectly if not for the fact that as Alice's condition proves nothing in life goes according to plan and Fiercombe Manor holds secrets darker than Alice's. When Alice meets young Tom Stanton, home on family business, she is determined to route out the secrets of what happened thirty years earlier to the pregnant Lady Elizabeth Stanton, Tom's Aunt, as she starts to fall for the young heir. Can disastrous decisions lead to a happily ever after for Alice or is her fate just as tragic as Elizabeth's?
Funnily enough this is the book that kickstarted my plunge into Gothic literature. Last July various pressures were impacting my life and I just wanted to escape somewhere gloomy, away from the heat and the present. I wanted a book to fit my mood, with a grand old house and a supernatural bent set anytime but now. I went to the Internet and the Internet spat Fiercombe Manor back at me. Literally everyone kept recommending this book to me. Compared to Rebecca, a classic that can never be imitated, and The Little Stranger, a book I have a complicated relationship to, I should have started to be wary. I so hoped this book would fill this void in me, this need, but it just wasn't to be. Nothing in the book lived up to the moniker of Gothic and trying to escape the heat of a Midwest summer by reading about the unseasonable heat of a English summer... yeah... not what I had planned. I actually struggled with finishing this book. It threw me off my reading goals entirely. I hate it when a bad book knocks you off the rails and you just can't get past it to get back into the reading groove. Eleven days it took me to slog through this book and I was left unsatisfied. In fact I picked up more and more books hoping to find some solace in good Gothic literature, and the truth is I should have just stuck with the classics, Du Maurier, Jackson, they knew their craft and set out to do something original not be poseurs and ride the coattails of other greater authors. They are the standard to which all is judged and most found lacking.
The main problem I had with this book was that it was trying way too hard to be in the style of Daphne Du Maurier. Yes, there's a reason people keep comparing Fiercombe Manor to Rebecca, and that's because Riordan is trying SO HARD to make you believe it. I actually wonder if she was able to delude herself with the recluse valley, the hidden home, and the lush vegetation. It didn't fool me for a minute because there is no one who will ever be able to write like Du Maurier with her ability to capture nature with her lyrical descriptions of effulgent flowers coupled with looming dread. NO ONE! I mean seriously, stop trying. Any book compared to the classic that is Rebecca is bound to let the reader down. This is one of the most perfect books ever written and to try to say this author whom, let's face it, I've never heard of until now could come close? I should have known it was not going to happen. But this leads to an interesting question, a lot of people look for books that are read-a-likes, books that evoke or are similar in style to other books they love. When do recommendations turn sour? Because in the instance of Fiercombe Manor I could tell Riordan was trying to emulate Du Maurier, but there are other books compared to Rebecca that just have a similar feel without trying to BE it. Over on Goodreads there's a list that actually recommends Nine Coaches Waiting as a read-a-like, and here I'd agree. Same vibe without any authorial delusions that lead to disappointments. Originality while maintaining the proper "Rebecca" mood is the line that needs to be walked. So publishers, be careful in your blurbs, they could alienate your readers.
Belabouring this whole Rebecca vibe, because I'm totally going to eventually just go out and get a stick and start hitting this book, I have to go back into how Riordan captures the sense of place; that little valley somewhere in Gloucestershire. Or should I say how she fails to capture the sense of place. She needed to draw herself a freakin' map. I am not joking. While Du Maurier had the benefit of Manderley being based on a real location, Menabilly, just from her descriptions alone you could draw a map. You knew where everything was. The place was a character. Now if Riordan really wanted to make this book like Rebecca she could have at least tried to make the place's character stick. Because every time she talks about that valley there's something not quite right. You can never get a sense of it. The new house feels like it's jumping all the compass points, the pond is shifting locations, now where's the road? I mean I was just darn confused. Now this could be a gimmick, disorient your readers and maybe you can trick them into thinking it's Gothic and it's supernatural elements at work. I call foul. Some of the best Gothic writing out there I can picture perfectly. How Hill House sits just so with the drive coming right up to the door after passing through the gates with the hills behind. Manderley and how the new rooms face away from the sea... details don't take away from your story, they add to it. Just add it right.
Yet I think the key to Fiercombe Manor is that unless you are pregnant this book is not scary at all. Seriously. Not. One. Scare. There's no ominous vibe, there's nothing. Oh, should I count that random thunderstorm? No, because it was just a little thunder! So what have we got for the Gothic in this book? An outcast heroine, a "haunted" house, and babies... um... seriously? And totally not in the right proportions. I'm not joking when I say that there is more time spent with Alice cleaning silver than there is in actually trying to discover what the secrets of the house are. And you know what the secret is in the end? This is a sad tale of a wife who was depressive with a large helping of children issues, from dead babies to postpartum depression that is treated in insane asylums... So at the end of the day, you're not chilled from the spectres of dead children, you're just sad. Sad that what happens to a woman before and after pregnancy wasn't understood at the turn of the last century. Also, let's be honest, it wasn't really understood when Alice was pregnant in the thirties either. This is a book that has the mindset of today being thrust back in time. Just like I had similar issues with Angelica because of this, I feel that this book just didn't live up to it's potential. But stripping it down, seeing what it's skeleton is, I can't really see how it could have become a successful Gothic tale. It was just sadness and melancholy, and seeing as that was what I was trying to escape from... yeah, not the book for me.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Fiercombe Manor by Kate Riordan