Friday, February 26, 2016

Book Review - T.J. Brown's Summerset Abbey

Summerset Abbey by T.J. Brown
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: Gallery Books
Publication Date: August 6th, 2013
Format: Kindle, 322 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Rowena and Victoria Buxton are reeling from the death of their beloved father. Yet there are more shocks to come. The two girls were raised in a rather unorthodox manner growing up with their nanny's daughter, Prudence, as their closest friend and confidant. But now their lives are in the hands of their Uncle and things are going to be different; proper. Banished to the countryside so their uncle can secretly sell their London house, Prudence was only allowed to accompany the sisters by posing as their lady's maid. Something Rowena failed to mention to Victoria and Prudence... but then Rowena doesn't do conflict. She'd rather hide her head in the sand than face what her life has become, an endless parade of changing clothes to please her aunt's sense of propriety. Rowena's behavior drives a wedge between the girls and Prudence, more so than Victoria, feels that her life has been irreparably changed. Banished to living a half life among the servants she doesn't fit in either upstairs or down. What's more there are forces at work trying to oust Prudence from the family seat. Because Prudence is the living breathing proof of a long buried secret that could destroy the Buxton family. Rowena and Victoria's lives could be ruined by the person they love most in the world and who they've inadvertently wronged.

Summerset Abbey is an odd little book in that it was obviously written to cash in on the Downton Abbey craze. Some books are more subtle about this cash grab, Summerset Abbey isn't. That actually makes it kind of refreshing. It doesn't have delusions of grandeur, it knows what a knock-off it is and plays it up. Every trope you could ever possibly imagine in an "upstairs/downstairs" world is used. It's not just one trope played up and overused, it's all of them. Illegitimate offspring, tragic child death, Cinderella story, long lost relatives, improper liaisons, suffrage, evil lady's maids, sweet kitchen maids, deep dark family secrets, money problems, looming war, newfangled gadgets from cars to airplanes, omniscient butlers, Bohemian brothers, beautiful ladies against societal norms, the list goes on and on. In a little over three hundred pages Summerset Abbey uses almost every plot point from seven seasons of Upstairs, Downstairs and never lets up. Yet this overabundance pays off. It's like a giddy headlong rush into this Edwardian world where we get every kind of scandal and twist we could possibly imagine or want. It's like Downton Abbey concentrate. Here, have it all AND the kitchen sink! And you as the reader say thank you very much.

The one trope that niggled at me a little from the plethora of tropes on hand was the backlash of the Bohemian lifestyle. When reality comes a-crashing down the sisters just can't cope. I am really of two minds as to this plot contrivance. What I really liked is that Brown actually bothered to establish the credibility of this Bohemian lifestyle they were living. It wasn't just an aside, like it is in most books, it was discussed and built on. The jobs and independence of the girls. The friends of the family that embodied this movement, such as Picasso. The fact that women struggling for suffrage were referred to properly as suffragists NOT suffragettes. Even how their beliefs were reflected in their beloved home's architecture and how the rooms were incorporated into large communal spaces. I loved all this. What I didn't love is the girls being unwilling or unable to comprehend that their father wasn't as farsighted as he should have been. If they truly were the Bohemians and strong independent women their father raised them to be they should have been able to face this new reality and take it head on and make of their lives what they wanted. They should have been strong, independent, "new" women that get things done, not roll over! Yes, technically the book is about them figuring out how to do this in little ways, but overall it just annoyed me that they couldn't at least make a better attempt at living the life they wanted.

This is exacerbated to the nth degree with Prudence. I mean how could she be so ignorant? She knew how lucky she was being raised alongside Rowena and Victoria, yet when reality comes a calling she is unable to face it. She is the daughter of a servant, did she really expect to be treated as one of the family? Yes, her Cinderella story seems unfair, but the way she handles it. Ugh. Cinderella buckled down and accepted her new fate until she found a way out. Prudence whines and moans and actually is a rather belligerent lady's maid. Just, ugh. How!?! How could she not know or expect this? Plus, once she starts learning more about her past and her mother, she should have no doubt that this is the life that should have been hers. She was lucky. She spent her childhood in this little magical bubble that protected and coddled her, but in no way prepared her for reality. In fact, that I think is what annoys me most with the "Bohemian" aspect to this book. The girls were all raised in a word that showed them truth and reality, not that rarefied magical gentrified world that would soon come to an end. Yet somehow they were in an even more magical world that made them less able to handle harsh reality. I guess I just can't come to terms with my heroines being so stupid and not knowing that this is how life works. That this would be their life. It's like they are purposefully deluding themselves.

But there is no one better for delusions than Rowena. Rowena is obviously the Lady Mary of the sisters. She has no focus in life, no goals, and can not confront reality so just sits around doing nothing. The pain she inflicts on Victoria and Prudence by her hording secrets is just viciously cruel. All the more so because she knows how it will hurt them but just ignores it. And her acquiesce to her uncle's plans. Ugh. She could have tried. She could have had Victoria at her side trying to fight this, but no. She just lets it happen. See, the thing with having "bad guys" is that you need to love to hate them. Like Thomas and Lady Mary, you can see other sides to them through the bad behavior, they're not just one dimensional. Rowena is one dimensional. She is all about whatever is best for her. I hated her more than any other character in any book I've read recently. She doesn't just deserve to be smacked, she deserves to be smacked with a lead pipe. By someone who can do serious damage. Rowena in fact keeps grinding the book down every single time she appears on it's pages. What's even worse is that with the pilot she meets and starts up a flirtation with, Jon, she is the only one of the three women who gets moments of happiness. She is a spineless self-centered bitch, she doesn't deserve one second of happiness. I wish she'd get in that plane and it would crash and burn. That is the only fitting end for her.

The tropes and the characters all being so a-typical I found the a-typical mystery a bit ludicrous. Are we really supposed to be surprised by the dark and dangerous secret that Prudence's past hides? Because it was handled so heavy-handedly that at times I was laughing at the book. I kept expecting someone to show up and drone on about there being something nasty in the woodshed. The melodrama was worthy of old silent films with the villain twirling his moustache while the damsel was tied to the train tracks. Here's a radical idea. If there's a big evil secret, don't have everyone know about it and then drop heavy hints left right and center. A mystery should be mysterious. There should be some work on the part of the reader to solve it. The solution to the enigma shouldn't be a foregone conclusion. But this would be expecting more than what this book is. This book is nothing more then a fun and cheesy Downton Abbey pastiche mashing up everything into a read that doesn't strain your braincells but gives you just the right amount of period immersion. To expect more wouldn't be fair to the book. As for the possibility of me continuing on with this series? I don't quite see myself taking that plunge. I just didn't love the characters enough and the thought that Rowena might actually get a HEA makes me physically ill. But I enjoyed it for what it was, at times despite itself.


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