”We’d all be destroyed if we could remember everything…”
this is, for my tastes, a perfect vacation book.
i know the whole idea of a “beach read” is that it’s a book so unchallenging that it’s barely there; something to doze over on the plane, a prop to hide behind
if when you get caught checking out someone’s…swimsuit, a cheap waterlogged paperback that can be left behind in a hotel room because both the book and the reading experience itself are meant to be 100% disposable.
well, i hate the beach.
and my escapist books tend to be in the vein of “look at this dog sitting on this thing!”
by the way, look at this cat sitting on this thing!
naughty vacation cats!
i remember my vacations by what i was reading at the time, so for me, a vacation read needs to at the very least leave an impression on me, and preferably be as interesting as the vacation itself.
this was the perfect balance between “keeping my interest” and “not being so unputdownable that i miss mealtimes.”
i wasn’t sure about it before i began. after all, aren’t there already one million historical novels about english country homes and family secrets and ways in which past events haunt the present?
but this is one of the good ones.
the story is split between events of 1959 and events “over fifty years later.” the earlier timeline is a slow unrolling of a summer four teenage sisters spend with their aunt and uncle while their effervescent mother is abroad. their cousin audrey vanished five years earlier, and applecote manor is heavy with memories; their aunt still deep in her grief. the summer is a compressed coming-of-age experience for the girls – left largely to their own devices, they come together and grow apart, they test their sexual currency, they reassess their choices, and fifteen-year-old margot becomes consumed by the mystery of audrey’s disappearance.
plus, the novel opens on the girls dragging a dead man’s body across the grounds, so there’s that.
in the “now,” a family moves into applecote manor, a bit of a fixer-upper after all this time, but then, so is the family (oooh, you see what is being done here??) the point is driven home in another architecture-based analogy, concerning the property’s orangery:
…Jessie tracks the paned glass as it climbs to its geometric peak, a feat of Victorian engineering that promises tangy Mediterranean fruit in the English climate among the woolly pippins. Something about that optimism – control through enclosure, a sort of forced nurturing – whispers in her ear: isn’t she trying to do something similar, only with a family?
theirs is an imperfectly blended family – jessie married will, a widower whose 16-year-old daughter bella is still not happy about jessie’s presence in their lives, even though they’ve been married long enough to have a three-year-old daughter together. she still misses her “perfect” mother, and has been misbehaving back in london, precipitating their move. will is commuting between applecote manor and london, often leaving his womenfolk rattling around for long stretches of time in the big house, whose past seems determined to pop up alongside the tensions of the present-day.
the earlier storyline was more interesting to me – i enjoyed seeing the separate personalities of the sisters develop and clash while still retaining their deep sisterly bond, and the pacing was absolutely perfect for a slow summer simmer. as for the “now,” i’m a little who-caresy about sullen teenage girls and anxious, hand-wringing stepparenting in general, but the distribution of the two stories never felt uneven, and i was never resentful when it returned to present day – which is a stronger statement if you knew how frequently i groan when split-narrative books return to their less-interesting thread.
i am looking forward to reading more from this author, whether or not i am on vacation at the time.