Review 1746: The Hand That First Held Mine

Best of Ten!

It’s the mid-1950’s, and Lexie Sinclair has already made arrangements to leave her family home in Devon when she meets Innes Kent. He is a stylish magazine editor whose car has broken down on their road. When she tells him she is coming to London, he asks her to look him up. Instead, he looks her up.

Lexie takes up an exciting life as part of the Soho art scene. She and Innes are the loves of each other’s lives even though he is married. His wife has, however, taught her daughter Margo to hate Lexie even though she and Innes have been split up for years.

In present-day London, Elina and Ted have just had a baby. The birth was difficult, and Elina is having a hard time coping with the pressures of motherhood. At the same time, Ted, whose memory is notoriously poor, has begun having flashes of memory that do not correspond to what he understands of his life. Slowly, these two stories connect.

Maggie O’Farrell is always wonderful, I find, but this novel had me sobbing. It is beautiful and tragic as it explores the themes of motherhood and family secrets.

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Review 1376: A Harp in Lowndes Square

In a lonely attic, a neglected child sits and makes clothing for her doll out of old clothes. Everyone is out, surely, but she hears voices on the stairs. These voices belong to her two children, twenty years in the future.

Those children are twins, Vere and James, who have been taught by their mother that all time is simultaneous. The two do indeed experience flashes of visions and sounds from other times, events that occurred in the room years before.

Vere and James’s happy growing up, along with their sister, Lalage, is interrupted by the death of their father. The family is left in financial difficulties and must move from their suburban home to a small house in London. This brings their mother, Anne, back into the orbit of her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant.

It is clear that, when she returns from visits to her mother, Anne appears to be more worn than usual. Anne’s children know that the two don’t get along and suspect that Lady Vallant harasses Anne. However, a chance remark reveals to them an aunt they didn’t know existed, Myra, who died when she was young.

Vere and James receive impressions of serious events that are not talked about. They begin trying to find out the secrets in their family’s past.

This novel is a ghost story but not in the sense of one meant to scare. It reflects Ferguson’s interest in houses and her sense that actions taken in a room stay in that room’s atmosphere. This idea also occupied A Footman for a Peacock, which I found considerably less likely than this novel, which is set during World War I.

I like a ghost story, but this novel has more going on than that. It’s a story of how family events can affect the lives of others who weren’t even alive when they happened. It’s a good character study of Vere, who cares deeply about a few people but is meticulous and reticent in nature. It is also about a chaste love affair with an older man—and his wife. I didn’t really understand the charms of that relationship, but I very much enjoyed this novel.

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Review 1346: After You’d Gone

Cover for After You'd GoneAlice Raike takes an unplanned trip from London to North Berwick to see her family. After she arrives, she sees something horrible that makes her return immediately to London. Later that evening, her mind in an uproar, she steps off a curb into oncoming traffic and ends up in the hospital in a coma.

In vignettes shifting in time and point of view, After You’d Gone tells the story of Alice’s life and of her family’s secrets. This novel is powerful, and it had me in tears by the end. O’Farrell slowly peels off layer after layer to reveal the truths of Alice’s life.

I don’t know what else I can say about this novel except I loved it.

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Day 879: A Spool of Blue Thread

Cover for A Spool of Blue ThreadBest Book of the Week!
I haven’t read much Anne Tyler lately, but having just finished A Spool of Blue Thread, I think I should read more. This is one of those novels that seems to have more layers, the more you think about it.

Red and Abby Whitshank live in a lovely house in a Baltimore suburb that Red’s father Junior built for a client years ago. The house was Junior’s pride and joy, and he was constantly adding to it and refining it. Red, also a builder, has kept it in tip-tip condition. But now Red and Abby are in their 70’s. Red has recently had a heart attack, and the family gathers to decide what to do after Abby begins having gaps in her memory.

The family can sometimes be contentious, and their most troublesome member is Denny. Abby has always had a habit of inviting in strays, what her family calls her “orphans,” in an attempt to re-create the welcoming atmosphere in the house when she visited as a girl. The children have always resented these extra presences. But when Denny was four, Abby took this habit to extremes by insisting on taking in the orphaned son of one of Red’s workmen, a two-year-old boy named Stem. Denny is clearly jealous of Stem, and so is moody and unpredictable. He travels around from job to job and doesn’t tell the family about his life. He is undependable, leaving at the drop of a hat, and then can’t understand why no one asks for his help.

By the time Denny arrives, expecting to move in to help Red and Abby, Stem and his family have already rented out their house and moved in. Although there is some comic tension about who is helping whom, the family is all together again with the girls visiting frequently, and they enjoy telling their family stories.

After a tragic event, the novel moves back in time to the day when young Abby fell in love with Red. This has always been one of Abby’s favorite stories, but now we see a different side to it and to her.

Then the novel moves back farther in time to examine the relationship of Junior and his wife Linnie. At first, we’re shocked by some of its revelations, but we learn that human relationships are deep and complex.

This is a lovely novel about family stories and secrets, about how different people’s realities differ, about love and forgiveness.

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Day 852: The Lake House

Cover for The Lake HouseThe Lake House is another of Kate Morton’s enthralling novels about family secrets. It is set in two time periods, 1933 and 2003.

In 1933 Cornwall, Alice Edevane is 16. She loves her life in the woods and gardens of the family estate, Loeanneth, and she spends her time writing stories of romance and mystery. She reads her stories to Ben Munro, an itinerant gardener whom she loves. Her newest one is about a kidnapping, set in her own home.

In 2003, Sadie Sparrow is a police officer on an enforced holiday. She got over-involved in a case, in her partner’s opinion, and went to the media when she thought it was mishandled. Her partner is trying to keep her name out of the subsequent investigation, but he wants her on vacation for a month.

Sadie chooses to visit her grandfather Bertie in Cornwall, where he recently moved after her grandmother’s death. In traipsing around the woods with the dogs, she comes upon the abandoned house at Loeanneth. When she tries to find out about the house, she learns that it was deserted after the disappearance of a little boy, Theo Edevane, who was never found.

Sadie decides she would like to look into the cold case with the help of retired officer Clive Robinson. She tracks down Alice Edevane, now a famous novelist, and writes asking for permission to enter the house. But she hears nothing back.

Alice has always believed she knew what happened to Theo and thinks it is her fault. She has no desire to reopen the investigation, however unofficial. But a frank conversation with her sister Deborah reveals something she didn’t know, which leads her to re-evaluate her belief in what happened long ago. When the persistent Sadie writes again, she agrees to see her.

The story alternates between the investigation in the present and the events leading up to Theo’s disappearance. We see the past events from the points of view of several different characters but mostly from that of Eleanor, Alice’s mother.

I absolutely loved this novel, with one caveat. It is intricately plotted and beautifully written, as are Morton’s other novels. I also found it completely absorbing.

However, the coincidence of what happened to Theo I found a bit much. I can’t explain more, but read it yourself and tell me what you think.

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Day 710: The Kept

Cover for The KeptBest Book of the Week!
The Kept is a mysterious and darkly moody novel that I found compelling from the first sentences. Elspeth Howell arrives home on a snowy winter day in upstate New York near the turn of the 19th century. She has been away for months working as a midwife. But when she reaches home, she finds that her husband and all of her children that live in the house have been murdered. Only her 12-year-old son Caleb, who has taken to living in the barn, is alive, but he has been hiding in the pantry for days, and when she opens the pantry door, he shoots her in terror.

Caleb spends the next few days alternately trying to take care of his mother and dispose of the bodies of the rest of his family. He cannot bury them in the frozen earth, but in his attempt to burn them, he accidentally burns down the house. He ends up caring for his mother in the barn.

The Howell’s home is isolated and difficult to find. As a young girl, Espeth was driven from her home for having spoken to Jorah, the man she later married, because he was Native American. But there are other reasons for the family’s isolation. In any case, Elspeth thinks the murderers must have sought for their house.

When Elspeth is barely healed, she and Caleb set forth to find the three men who murdered their family, men whom Caleb watched from the barn. They stay briefly with an old couple who have been terrorized by the same three men and who point them in the direction of a town on Lake Erie with a terrible reputation. There, with Elspeth disguised as a man, they go to search for the men.

Beginning as a straightforward revenge novel, the book goes on to explore deeper themes. One of them is that of unintended consequences, as Caleb finds that their troubles result from Elspeth’s own actions years before.

This novel is well written and packed with atmosphere. It is vivid and brutal and beautiful.

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Day 682: The Sea House

Cover for The Sea HouseAn atmospheric novel set on the Scottish isle of Harris, The Sea House offers a fascinating story split between two times, the 1990’s and the early 19th century.

In 1992, Ruth and Michael have purchased a ramshackle Georgian house on the island, intending to fix it up and open a bed and breakfast. The house used to be the manse long before a new modern house was built. In tearing up the floorboards in the study, Michael finds the small corpse of a baby, although its legs are unfinished, looking more like a fish tail.

The body is at least 100 years old and its death is found to be of natural causes, but Ruth becomes interested in finding out more about the long-ago occupants of the house, hoping to identify the baby. She begins looking into the house’s history.

Ruth also knows very little about her own history. When she was 10, her mother’s death by drowning was found to be suicide, and she grew up in a series of foster homes. She knows nothing about her father, and all her mother told her was that they came from the islands and were descended from selkies. Her last name was Macleod, which she finds is a very common name there, but when she consults a genealogist, the woman can find no trace of a woman of her mother’s name and age born on the islands, leading them to guess that she was using a false name.

In 1860, Alexander Ferguson is the new curate at the manse. He is serious and eager to serve god and his parishioners. He is also interested in the new discoveries about evolution and studies fossils looking for new species. His family legend also holds that he is descended from selkies, and he is fascinated when he hears that a mermaid was discovered on the beach after a storm. He would like to examine her, but she has already been buried and the authorities won’t dig her up. He becomes interested in the idea that selkies might actually exist and could be a cross-species between man and fish.

Alexander has also taken in a new maid, a girl found running wild. Moira’s family was moved off their island along with all the other families so that Lord Marston could put sheep on it. The families were allocated the worst piece of land and all of them except Moira got sick and died. Moira was away from the house when Lord Marston’s men came and burned it down, and she was living wild until the reverend took her in. She loves the reverend but has vowed to kill Lord Marston.

This novel is well written and interesting. I was engrossed in both the modern and historical stories. The novel is particularly interesting for those who like Celtic legends and folk tales.

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Day 645: The Secret Rooms

Cover for The Secret RoomsWhen British documentary producer Catherine Bailey began looking through family archives at Belvoir Castle, she was searching for information about the men from the area who served in World War I, including the 9th Duke of Rutland. What she didn’t find surprised her. Not only did she find few letters from the war, surprising for a family who wrote each other and others often, but the letters were missing from two other periods—when John Manners, later the 9th Duke, was nine years old and in 1909, when he was serving the ambassador in Rome.

Soon, Bailey learned that Manners spent the last days of his life, when he was dying of pneumonia, working among the archives in the room, that he died there, and that the rooms had been locked up ever since he died. It became clear that he was destroying correspondence and other papers. Further, she learned that the rooms had been broken into shortly after his death, the thief being identified later as John’s mistress, Hilda Lezard.

Bailey realized that without the letters for World War I, she could not complete her original project. However, she then decided to try to find out what happened during those three periods of the Duke’s life that he wanted hidden.

The result is a story as fascinating as any mystery novel. Although the entire truth of these periods will never be known—in particular, exactly what happened to the Duke’s brother Haddon when they were boys—the search is  as interesting as any modern crime story. The truth involves cruelty, duplicity, and a completely unscrupulous parent.

The Secret Rooms is an entertaining and interesting book. I highly recommend it.

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