Friday, January 23, 2015

Book Review 2014 #3 - Lauren Willig's That Summer

That Summer by Lauren Willig
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: June 3rd, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Julia Conley has inherited a house in England. A house on Herne Hill has been left to her by an unknown great-aunt. Julia and her father left England when she was six and her mother was killed in a car crash. Since her life in New York hasn't been going that well lately as one of the many unemployed, she decides to go to England and spend a few months sorting out the house and hopefully sorting out her life. For Julia who has viewed her family as just her and her father she finds it hard to come to gripes with the fact that this was where her mother came from and she still has family here with a few cousins, who of course feel slighted with great-aunt Regina's will. The more time Julia spends in the house the more she wishes she had been given the chance to know her great-aunt.

For Regina might have held the key to a lovely Pre-Raphaelite painting in one of the rooms of the house, which has a matching painting hidden deep at the back of one of the cupboards. Why was the one painting displayed and the other hidden? Who is this artist Gavin Thorne? Going back to 1849 we learn about the painter Gavin Thorne and his muse, Imogen Grantham, who happened to be the mistress of the house on Herne Hill and married to a wealthy and significantly older collector who was occasionally visited by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who doted on his historical relics. Yet why hide the painting? What connection does this painter and this wife have to Julia? More importantly, after 160 years can Julia find out?

Sometimes life is staggering in it's synchronicity. The very day that I received That Summer in the mail my Great-Aunt Vicki died. My family got the call that she had passed in her sleep and that the rest of the family was to descend on Madison to take care of her estate. My Great-Aunt was the last of the older generation, being preceded in death by all my Grandparents and even an Uncle. While sadly I have never been bequeathed a mysterious house, because she was the last of that generation I have gotten quite used to clearing out ancestral homes, my Grandparents farm having accumulated over a hundred years worth of ephemera, with sadly not a rare painting or a secret stash of cash in sight, but a random piano being used as a tool bench and much mouse effluvia. As I spent the following weeks sifting through the rooms of her house, picking what to keep and what to give away, I couldn't help but think of all the things I don't know about my family and where I come from. There is a strong ancestry bug that my family has, but I have not yet been bitten, and there's a part of me that keeps thinking, better now before it's too late.

The detritus is all we have left of our family's history. Random paintings around the house, Aunt so and so painted this, Cousin so and so did that one; just what if the painting was something more? What if the painting was a closely guarded secret that would unlock some mystery about yourself? The search for your own identity is caught up in the past, in where you come from. While Julia's search for what happened in her own past with her mother as well as to her ancestor's is something that might be uncommon, the search is something we can all identify with. Lauren has tapped into something deep within everyone, a longing to know where they're from in order to find out where they belong. This gives us a strong connection to the characters, we are on their journey with them and I wouldn't want it any other way.

While the time slip genre is nothing new, Lauren is able to create a more accessible story then some authors who mire their books in overly flowery details and descriptions that go on for so many pages you lose the thread of the story. This isn't to say the writing is sparse, it's exactly what it needs to be to conjure this world, no more and no less. Though there is a part of me that wishes at some time in the future Lauren would go all out and write a doorstop of a novel. Yet in Lauren's time slip she is able to capture the best of all worlds, with a little Kate Morton, a little Somewhere in Time, a nod to Du Maurier's Rebecca, a Keats Bridget Jones call out with a wink to Nancy Mitford's silly season. There are also echoes of Victorian literature, from Imogen's marriage mirroring Dorthea's in Middlemarch, to Gavin bringing a little of the John Thornton vibe from North and South. Yet these homages aren't derivative, they give us a touchstone for the time period but then become so distinctly their own story that while you remember the connections at the back of your mind they are inconsequential as the story takes on a life of it's own.

As for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, I will admit that this subject matter is what made me swoon when I heard over a year ago about Lauren's next planned stand alone. I think that I have adequately covered my love of them in previous posts and writings, but I will say that even in the BBC production of Desperate Romantics, they have always been a band apart. Outsiders who verged on Gods in their ways of self aggrandising each other and mythologizing their lives and works. They were Romantics in every sense of the word, demanding the capital letter "R". Yet Lauren brought them down off their pedestals. Packed into the snug sitting room on Herne Hill we see a human Rossetti with his schemes and ideas and his future spiraling out before him. The ways the Brotherhood sought out collectors of antiquities to give an authenticity to their paintings adds a realism to them and their works.

These men aren't Gods, no matter how many posters in English classrooms and dorm rooms might say otherwise, they are men. They have loved and lost and with Gavin we have a true romantic hero that is swoonworthy. And like all good writing, this one aspect of the book, the Brotherhood, it doesn't overpower the story, it compliments it, it strengthens and adds to it. You will fall into this book and even if you are just a fraction of a romantic the Pre-Raphaelite's were you will find yourself falling in love with both couples in the different time periods. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did, and if you're coming into this book from Lauren's Pink Carnation series, there are a few gems hidden in the book, but like these painters who would hide the Brotherhood's initials in their paintings, you might have to have a keen eye to spot them.


Newer Post Older Post Home