I am still reeling from this book. Surprising at every turn — and I’m not easily surprised. Nor am I easily impressed, particularly when it comes to books. The writing is fabulous – both in style and in storytelling.
The first-person narrator, Harriet Baxter, is an older women now, in 1933. She has decided to set down certain aspects of her life 50 years ago in 1888 and 1889 Glasgow. What begins as a much-needed change of scenery, and a bit of adventure by visiting the International Exhibition, becomes a life-changing experience — for everyone.
Quite by chance, she befriends a struggling but up-and-coming painter on the Glasgow scene. Ned Gillespie is a devoted family man. He adores his wife and their two daughters. They’ve managed to carve out a relatively happy life. Harriet, herself with no family other than a stepfather she rarely sees, spends more and more time with the Gillespie family, determined to help in any way she can. She becomes a self-appointed patron of their art as well as their struggles.
Although there is a great deal more to say about the story, I will refrain. Much of the beauty of this novel is how it unfolds and revealing too much here would deprive any reader of that enjoyment.
Harris’ characterizations are wonderful and delightfully Victorian. She finds a strong voice with Harriet, both in her memories and in her contemporary musings. She defies the code of her time. Here are two excerpts from early in the book.
This was such an exhausting conversation, hostile and full of dead ends. I had forgotten that such was the only type of discussion in which my stepfather engaged; his interlocutors were always his adversaries; indeed he did not feel that he was engaged in real dialogue unless one participant ended by triumphing over the other. I will admit to feeling frustrated. We had not seen each other for many years; it seemed hard to believe that we were embroiled in such a pointless, combative exchange about nothing more meaningful than gadgets.
‘No, sir,’ I said, shortly. ‘ I know of no such device.’
His lip curled, and he gazed at me, askance: if I were a representative of the modern world, then it would appear that I was distinctly below par in his estimation. Immediately I was filled with regret and anxiety: I had let him down! As a child, I had learned all about kaleidoscopes, in the hope of pleasing him. If only I was better informed, now, about carpet sweepers.
‘Pteridomania!’ exclaimed Peden. ‘ That dreaded disease.’ He angled his body away from me, in order to address me, sideways, over his shoulder. ‘It seems that when you ladies are weary of novels and gossip and crochet, you find much entertainment in ferns. No doubt you preside over a fern collection, Miss Baxter?’
‘Sadly, no!’ I replied. ‘What with all my novels and gossip and crochet, there’s no time left for ferns.’
The astute reader will, of course, realise that I was employing irony; by Mr Peden gave a self-satisfied nod – as though I had proven his point.
Like Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, at about the halfway point, the story takes an unexpected turn. It’s a brilliant misdirection and meant that I spent each free moment intent on reading just a few more pages. I barreled though to the end, desperate to know what will happen. Since finishing it, I’ve been suffering from acute withdrawal, and I continue to ruminate on it. Harris’ writing is at once fresh and vintage. The epistolary style harkens to the great Victorian novels Harriet herself eschews. I truly can’t wait for her next effort.
The author’s website: http://www.janeharris.com/
Many thanks to Erica at HarperPerennial for the review copy.
Imprint: Harper Perennial
On Sale: 1/31/2012
Format: Trade PB
Trimsize: 5 5/16 x 8
Ages: 18 and Up