Friday, February 14, 2014

Book Review - Jane Sanderson's Netherwood

Netherwood by Jane Sanderson
Published by: Sphere
Publication Date: September 29th, 2011
Format: Paperback, 455 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition then one reviewed)

Eve Williams and her husband Arthur live a hard but satisfying life. When Eve was growing up in Grangely never did she think that she would end up in Netherwood, married to a good man who worked hard in Lord Netherwood's mines, with three beautiful children, where a good meal on the table and a clean house would be her pride and joy. Though her life is about to be tested in many ways. The miners in Grangely have been trying to improve their conditions by unionizing and instead have been given the boot. Eve feels it's her duty to help those who haven't been given the opportunities she has. Eve and Arthur agree to take in a refuge, Anna, and her baby. Anna's husband has recently died and Anna is far from home, having fled disapproving parents in Eastern Europe. When Eve's world comes crashing down with the cave-in that kills Arthur, it is Anna who gives her the impetus to go on.

Anna tells Eve that she must do something. Eve must find a way to make money and save her family from penury, because there is no one else to do it. Buoyed by her family and friends, Eve opens up a pie shop in her front parlor, catering to simple Yorkshire fare. Drop scones, Yorkshire pudding, raised pork pies, the food of the common man cooked uncommonly well. And Anna and Eve do uncommonly well. They have a steady income and they are financially secure. But Anna, she has ambitions, she sees a bigger shop, a tea room, she has the entrepreneur in her bones and without Anna, Eve wouldn't be grabbing at life with both hands. Soon Eve's cooking comes to the attention of the great house and Lord Netherwood asks for Eve to cook for his son's coming of age party. This one job is the beginning of a life Eve could never have imagined. Cooking for the aristocracy and even the King! She might have lost everything when she lost Arthur, but if Arthur could only see her now, she hopes he'd be proud.

While, I won't disagree with the books claim to be "Perfect for fans of Downton Abbey," I am after all a fan of Downton and thought this book was perfect, but I will also say that it is a little misleading. This is like a gritter Yorkshire version of Upstairs, Downstairs, where the "downstairs" encompasses not just those physically in the grand estate, but those under the protection and sufferance of the grand family in the village, especially those working for the family under dangerous conditions mining their coal seam. It took me awhile to get into Netherwood because of my erroneous expectations, but once I started to expand my view beyond the grand house I kept expecting to take center stage I realized how much more interesting a book about all these interconnected lives surrounding the house was. This gulf between the haves and the have-nots is more prominent because of the lower classes being not just downstairs, but down the mines. It expanded the traditional narrative of this type of manor house book and gave me a broader and more interesting canvas then I would have expected. From labor disputes to unions to downstairs skirmishes, this book was willing to not shy away from unsavory topics, much like Upstairs, Downstairs did in it's time with addressing real issues while also being entertainment, unlike a show like Downton, which only seems to cover issues like suffrage because it's a "period detail" versus an important issue.

There was hardly a character in this book I disliked, even the villains are perfectly villainous and therefore beyond censure. Even the young lordling who will one day be Lord Netherwood was lovable in his own drunken misspent youthful way. While Eve is the cooking virtuoso, I think Anna is the real genius, she sees the opportunities that others don't. You'd expect her to be this meek little widow caring for a newborn, instead she is like a general on a battlefield issuing commands, more pies here, tea room here, expand there, move move move. Each and every character is so vibrant and alive they become your friends and you don't want to leave them, luckily for me there are already two more books in the series. All my fictional friends in this book lead me to worry about them. I fretted about the dynamic between the family and the workers, because you see that there isn't any malice between the two, just misunderstandings. The uniqueness of the characters and their complicated lives made this book just stand out amongst others of its ilk as the pinnacle to which you must strive. In layman's terms, read this book now!

Though be warned, you will be hungry. And not just a little peckish, oh dear no, this book will make you so freakin' hungry you'll be wondering if you have a chance to find a place with pies nearby. Oddly enough I do have a sweet and savory pie shop less then a block away, but it is of dubious repute, so hungry I remained. You know, in some books, the talent or special quality that the hero or heroine has is so ill defined that you just aren't able to connect. That was so not the case here. Jane Sanderson described the cooking and Eve's abilities so well you just wanted to go to her house and eat. Plus, with all the food, this book certainly qualifies as a comfort read. There is something about comfort food and the safety of a kitchen that makes you feel safe and loved. Shows like Pushing Daisies or The Duchess of Duke Street knew this, as do Mrs. Bridges and Mrs. Patmore, by welcoming us into their kitchens, they welcome us into their hearts and they into ours. But the one thing in the entire book that entertained me more then anything else? The lovely idea of "Duchess sized servings!" The idea of basic pies and food but made as finger food so that it wouldn't be off-putting to those of delicate sensibilities and palettes. Too perfect, much like everything in this book. I gotta dash now, Ravenscliffe is calling me!


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