Friday, February 19, 2016

Book Review - Natasha Solomons's The House at Tyneford

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons
Published by: Plume
Publication Date: December 27th, 2011
Format: Paperback, 368 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Vienna is Elise's home. There all the trappings of the glittering life she leads seem immutable. She will always go to the opera house to hear her mother Anna sing. She will always be jealous of her sister Margot's musical talents that form a special bond between Margot and Anna. She will always take pride in her father Julian, the "strange" writer. Because her life is for always. Until it isn't. Vienna is no longer safe for Jews. Margot's husband has gotten a job in California and they are to leave shortly; Anna and Julian are waiting for visas to go to New York. But Elise poses a problem. The plan is for Anna and Julian to send for her once they get to New York, but they are too scared to leave her behind. Therefore they decide that their best option is for Elise to go into service as a maid in England. There she will be safe until she can join her family in America. She gets a job in Dorset at Tyneford for a Mr. Rivers. The house seems cut off from the rest of the world and so different from the life she left behind.

Elise struggles not just with her tasks but with her English, feeling isolated from all that she held dear. The life she is living isn't what she expected and the other servants don't make her feel welcome. She just doesn't fit. She wasn't raised to be a servant, yet she doesn't quite belong upstairs either. She is living in limbo just hoping to hear from her family. Yet with the arrival of Mr. Rivers's son Kit life becomes easier and more complicated at the same time. Kit helps Elise with her English and his presence makes her work easier to bear. Though it is apparent to everyone that they are falling in love and this upstairs, downstairs romance is problematic to say the least. As the world descends into chaos with the outbreak of World War II the world that they knew will be destroyed. Elise struggles to hold onto this new life she has grown to love all while holding out hope that her family will join her and life can be as it was. Little does Elise know nothing will ever be the same again, even this new life she has come to love.

When writing a book you can't set out to write a classic. Your book attains that status over time, it's not something that you, as the author, have any control over. You just don't and if you can't accept this perhaps you shouldn't be a writer. Moreover, when writing a book it's best to not emulate a classic but to find your own voice. Your book will never be that classic you so want to replicate and I have never believed the old saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Therefore I had problems connecting with The House at Tyneford. Solomons so wanted her book to be Du Maurier's classic Rebecca that at times you feel as if she is trying to drive the point home with a blunt instrument. The thing about aping Du Maurier is that more than any other author there is no one like her so you should never try. She has an effortless way of describing her surroundings so that the lush and verdant foliage leap off the page. Solomons flowers lay limply in the hot sun. But the number one thing you shouldn't do is call out what you were attempting to do by having your characters go and see the Hitchcock adaptation of Rebecca! Solomons would occasionally find her own footing to fall over the big illuminated arrows showing how she could never be Du Maurier.

The House at Tyneford isn't a book for subtlety. It's not just the Du Maurier debacle, it's that Solomons paints her story with big strokes trying to capture the epicness of her narrative. That her story is a microcosm of what is being played out on the world stage is obvious, she just didn't need to make it so obvious. It was the day to day struggles and the relationships forged between the characters that I was most drawn to, and yet as the narrative progressed this is what she left by the wayside in favor of grand gestures. When all the players leave Tyneford for the last time it's as if Solomons decided to severe all ties with this world and these people we have come to love. We never learn the fate of any of Elise's fellow servants. We don't even get any insight into Elise's life after Tyneford. Because to Solomons this doesn't matter. It would be too finicky and delicate, not bold and brash enough. This is, after all, a book that loves wallow in the Freudian cigar imagery. Yes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar... but not when Solomons is writing.

But then again, having your entire story be an updating of Cinderella... well, that doesn't take much imagination now does it? Which lead me to start thinking about the Cinderella story. Here it fits more than most, because it isn't a simple rags to riches fable, it's love and comfort to drudgery to rescue. This is exactly the trajectory that Elise's life takes. And while I do love a happily ever after and a restoring of the status quo, when does this trope get played out? When do we say enough with the fairy tales give me something more real. Yes, you could say that this is more real with Elise and her plight, but still, the ending makes it fairy tale airy fairy. The heart of what I'm getting at is is Cinderella played out? I'm sure Kenneth Branagh would probably totally disagree with me because his adaptation last year is the highest grossing film he's ever done. But I really would like something new, some new twist. I would have liked to have heard Solomons voice coming through in this book instead of her trying to emulate other voices.

Despite some of the more cookie cutter aspects of The House at Tyneford, there are interesting concepts that are raised. Most of them aren't necessarily expanded on, but then again, I dwell in books and therefore a passing line can provide hours of thought. I found it interesting when the butler, Mr. Wrexham, said to Elise "you are to be the end of us all." While it's a bit doom and gloom coming from this very upright man I wonder was it so much Elise that he meant or was it what she symbolized. Was Elise a symptom of the end of the country house era or a cause? In other words, with the war creating all these refugees that then sought service in English country houses was it the war that ended this way of life, or was it the people displaced by war who upset the system from the inside? Personally, I think it was the war forever irreparably changing the landscape, but then again, in this instance, being the events at Tyneford, I would say that it was Elise. Yes their life would have change, but not in the same way. Therefore in this place and this time it's Elise.

Now that I've brought up the war in a little more detail I'd like to tackle something that irked me. Throughout the book Solomons does a great job connecting Elise and music, in fact you can't help say her name without thinking of the Beethoven composition. Music to Elise is her family and what they represent. When she leaves Vienna with the viola with Julian's manuscript hidden inside she is given a tangible and musical connection to those she loves. When one thinks of World War II and string instruments one cannot help but think of John Williams's haunting theme for Schindler's List as performed by Itzhak Perlman. At the very end of The House at Tyneford there is a composition written in honor of Elise's family, The Novel in the Viola: Concerto in D Minor for Viola and Orchestra. My problem is here we aren't given the chance to use our imagination. We aren't allowed to picture music and lasting resonance like that written by John Williams. There is an actual score and on Solomons website you can listen to it being preformed. It's not just that it's lackluster, it's that it makes something in the book so finite. Books need to have room for the readers to interpret. To bring their own experiences. To write the music and make it so uninspired takes away from the rest of the story.

The sad fact is I liked this book in spite of itself. Solomons undermines her own writing time and time again and if it wasn't for little things here and there I would write it off as a Du Maurier pastiche. It was the little things that made me like it. My most favorite moment was an aside by Kit when talking about his mother who died when he was four. He said that he no longer remembered her. He knew that he should because he was old enough. He even remembered events that she was a part of only she was no longer there. It was as if she had been cut out of the memories. This touched a nerve with me. There are people I have lost and in particular one wonderful kitty. I worry that I am forgetting, I worry that I am rewriting my own story. He has been gone so long that I can't remember the day to day. The way he felt on my lap. It's like there's this emptiness that he used to fill and he's been so entirely removed that I can't remember him. I can see why Elise writes down her story and places it in the viola. She didn't want to have this happen because she knew that at some point it must. It happened to Kit and she doesn't want it happening to her memories of him. A bittersweet thought. But then this book is filled with the bitter meeting the sweet.


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