I did not like it.
(Ahead be spoilers!)
I don’t like to write a negative review because I feel a sort of empathy towards authors. I’m not an author, nor am I even close to being one, but I love writing and have done a fair share of amateur writing myself, so I can at least appreciate how difficult it is to write an engaging novel while balancing all kinds of factors. No author would like to read a negative review of a work they’ve spent at least months preparing and writing for, and I empathize with that.
However, since I’m writing a review, I might as well write my honest thoughts.
This book was a let-down. I saw the reviews and ratings for it on Goodreads, but thought I shouldn’t let others’ opinions be my benchmark for how much I would enjoy a book. After all, it’s not like I haven’t enjoyed a book that’s been negatively reviewed somewhere or others (hell, even Jane Austen has her own fair share of detractors). I started the book excited, being sucked into the glitz and glamourous world of the Inghams and the Swanns. I even took a used piece of paper and began to draw out a family tree just to keep track of who’s who, how old they were and who’s died and who hasn’t. The Inghams are an aristocratic family living in their family seat of Cavendon Hall, while the Swanns are yet another family who have served the Inghams for centuries. Their current patriarch, Walter Swann, is valet to the 6th Earl of Mowbray, Charles Ingham.
Then the awful event takes place that is so shouted about in the synopsis. Lady Daphne, Charle’s beautiful 17 year old daughter, gets raped by a man, one of her neighbours and someone she knows, and on Ingham land. Honestly, I almost put the book down after this event. Trigger warning, please?! This came out of nowhere and I really don’t enjoy reading about this subject matter. Nevertheless, I pressed on with the book, deciding to accept the event and see how the families deal with it. There’s appropriate sorrow, grief, shame and all that, but everything seems very nicely resolved in the end. Charles and his wife, Felicity, only have kind words and love for Lady Daphne when they (eventually) find out about not only her rape, but her resulting pregnancy. Before her own parents find out about it, though, at least 3 members of the Swann family already has, and it is one of them, Charlotte, closest in age and platonic relationship to Charles, who breaks the news to the parents.
Now, I don’t know much about this period of English history, in the 1910s. But I’m pretty sure something as horrific as a rape on an Earl’s daughter would have a whole lot more repercussions than it does in the book. Lady Daphne’s rapist is Richard Torbett, of the Torbett family living neighbouring to Cavendon Hall. Her childhood best friend is Richard’s youngest brother, Julian, who suddenly and very coincidentally dies soon after the rape, after an accident while horseriding. Because Richard has threatened to kill Lady Daphne’s mother and her youngest 5 year old sister if any word of his identity is breathed, Lady Daphne conveniently pushes the blame onto Julian, recently deceased. What? As if it’s not enough that this whole thing happened, she was willing to sully a childhood best friend’s name? A childhood best friend who was actually happily engaged to another girl before his untimely death. She could’ve easily denied it was Julian and said she didn’t see the identity of the other man, if she was afraid of Richard’s threats. It’s not even that their friendship has cooled and distanced, as she had been to Julian’s house to visit and was raped on her way back to Cavendon Hall. I just don’t understand.
Meanwhile, there’s a new maidservant in Cavendon Hall, Peggy Smith, who has the hots for Gordan Lane, another servant. Peggy is a single mother whose child has either been adopted or left to her sister to rear. Lady Daphne sees Peggy’s sister and the baby when she comes to visit and instinctively knows that the child is really Peggy’s, which creates a sort of sympathy for her since she’s pretty much in the same plight. Nothing is known about why Gordon Lane or Peggy Smith fell for each other (aside from the momentous revelation of This is the woman I must marry at one glance under the moonlight, because such thoughts occur irrevocably in everyday life), and their relationship just seems unnecessary in the whole book except to provide a little forbidden sex scene in the woods. Throughout the whole of that scene, I kept thinking – why am I reading this? Who are these people? I’m not emtionally invested in them, why am I reading this explicit scene about them having sex?
But then, after further thought, I realised I’m not emotionally invested in any of the characters. The characters are generally one-dimensional, and some characters are almost non-entities. You are introduced to 10 or so characters within the first 20 pages, but almost none of them have much role to play. Charles and Felicity Ingham have 6 children, Guy (22), Deidre (20), Daphne (17), Miles (14), DeLacy (12), Dulcie (5). Guy, Deidre and Miles are almost non-existent throughout the book, their appearances more like cameos than actually playing a role. Daphne, of course, plays the biggest role since the most major event in the book surrounds her. Then we have the Swanns. Walter Swann is valet to Charles Ingham, his wife Alice is the house’s seamstress or something (I didn’t know noble families employed live-in seamstresses?), they have a 12 year old daughter Cecily who is DeLacey’s best friend and playmate, and also Miles’s childhood girlfriend (they eventually grow up with the hots for each other but – whatever).
The matriarch of the Swann family is not Alice, however, but Charlotte, whom I can’t figure out is Walter’s sister or aunt. Whatever it is, Charlotte grew up with Charles and his sisters when they were children, and when she was 17, she entered the employment of Charles’s father, David, the 5th Earl of Mowbray. Not-so-secret rumours flew regarding the relationship between Charlotte and the 5th Earl but this is already history by the time the book starts. Eventually, later, when Charles’s wife Felicity leaves him for inexplicable reasons, Charlotte somehow develops a relationship with Charles. OK, what the fuck? Sleeping with the father before the father died 8 years ago, and then sleeping with the son almost a decade later??? I know all kinds of weird shit happened back in the day, but this development just happened too suddenly and was just another thing to pile on the WTF-ery. Also, I don’t even get why Felicity left Charles. Nothing is really known about her except that she’s been spiritually absent, a pretty convenient excuse to have her character like a wallpaper in the background, because of her sister Anne suffering from a terminal illness and being at death’s door. Interestingly, Anne is always just dying, but is never said to have actually died in the entire book – another convenient excuse. Felicity tells Charles that she is no longer interested in him sexually and wants a divorce – on the day that 5 year old Dulcie almost got abducted by who is presumably Richard Torbett, rapist of Daphne. God knows what horrors might’ve been in store for Dulcie if Percy Swann (I have no fucking idea how he’s related to the Swanns and I gave up keeping track by that point) hadn’t showed up in time and driven the villain away. So this horrific event was just narrowly prevented and one would imagine a mother would have more to think about on a day like this, and chosen another day to coldly and unfeelingly break up with her husband. IT JUST DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.
You know what else doesn’t make sense? This relationship between the Inghams and Swanns. It’s not unusual for a family of lower social standing to become loyal and serve the same aristocratic family for generations, centuries. What is unusual, though, is when said family start crossing the lines. Out of goodwill, the aristocrats may consent to fund their servants’ children’s education – but to allow their children to be educated under the same governess as their own aristocratic daughters? To be brought up on an equal footing with their daughters? I’m sorry, but this is beyond the limit of realism for that time period. Social class was rigid as fuck in English history, and not even the wildest acts of generosity could break the class barrier to that extent. This story took place in the year 1913, where arguably social mobility was at its most fluid it has been for centuries past, but not to this extent. I argue that even now in this modern day and age, this kind of relationship would never exist between two similarly juxtaposed families in England. Furthermore, the Swanns’ family motto is apparently Loyalty binds me, and they have to take some stupid oath when they come of age to swear to protect the Inghams? If there’s going to be this kind of high-flown cheesy concept going on, I would at least want to know why. Generations of servitude under this aristocratic family isn’t going to breed this kind of fierce loyalty. It might’ve been passable with a family of warrior knights sworn to protect another family of nobles back in the Middle ages, but – in Edwardian England? I can’t see this happening. In any case, we have no plausible reason for this amazing loyalty of the Swanns towards the Inghams, despite being reminded of this repeatedly every two pages. What’s even more amazing is that none of the Swanns waver from this one-track loyalty. When 12 year old Cecily is willing to take the rap for DeLacy Ingham’s mistake of spilling ink on an old, fragile but well-preserved and beautiful lace ball gown, her mother Alice nods and says that she’s a “true Swann” because she’s willing to give up everything to protect an Ingham. So… this blind loyalty is written into the Swann genetic code or something? There better be some sorcery somewhere up the line, because I can’t see this ever happening in real life. And of course, it seems that Swann women are irresistible to Ingham males, once again crossing the boundary of master and servant.
I read excitedly through about 50% of this book and kinda gave up, but I was curious to know the ending so I flipped forward about 110 pages. To my extreme surprise, the characters were still talking about the exact same events as 110 pages ago. LOL. That was when I realised that I don’t really want to bother properly reading the last half of the book. I skimmed through the rest just to get an idea of what happened, and finished the entire thing within 2 or 3 hours. The only big things that happened was Dulcie’s near-abduction, Felicity’s inexplicable request for a divorce from her husband, Charles and Charlotte’s equally inexplicable sudden attraction towards each other, and Hugo and Daphne’s marriage (saw that coming from a mile off anyway). Oh, and even though the blurb mentioned something about WW1 looming ahead, it only had a few cursory scenes in the book. By miracles and more miracles, Charles and Miles Ingham are spared from having to serve their country, saving the incumbent Earl and his spare heir. Unsurprisingly and to no one’s anguish, Guy is killed in WW1. He barely appeared in the book anyway. Hugo signs up to serve (he’s a cousin of Charles’s who was exiled to America 16 years ago, did well in business, took a wife and had a happy marriage for 9 years until said wife died a year ago, then he expressed a wish to come back. Upon which, he proceeded to quickly and immediately fall head over heels for Daphne, and unsurprisingly accepted her previous rape and current pregnancy without much struggle), since he is bursting with patriotism for England even though he hasn’t come back for the past 16 years, living in America since he was 16 years old. The only purpose for WW1 in this book, therefore, is to have an obligatory sad mournful family death (Guy) and to have Hugo a chance to meet Richard Torbett, Daphne’s rapist and also serving in the army. Richard Torbett is very dramatically and conveniently killed, not by Hugo’s hand but by Hugo’s friend misdirecting him towards the German lines where he is bombed up quickly. Fantastic! Exit primary villain without staining our hero with the foul name of murder.
If you’ve gotten anything from my really long after-thoughts so far, it’s basically that the plot was thin, the characters were unlikeable and unrelatable, everything was somewhat unrealistic, the dialogue was uninteresting and flat and it just didn’t work. I was really excited to read it because it had such a luxurious-sounding title, the blurb sounded interesting and the cover was gorgeous. Unfortunately, though… Sigh. I won’t write off Barbara Taylor Bradford just yet, because I’ve heard good things about the rest of her work, and how some reviewers say this book was an anomaly from her usual, but I was really quite disappointed and annoyed with this book, despite wanting to give it a fighting chance.