A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This got my “Most Frustrating Book of the Year 2009” award. As I am not in the habit of awarding such titles to books, this is a big deal. I picked up this book because I had always thought of Gregory as an historical author, who only dealt in historical events (she is, after all, famously the author of The Other Boleyn Girl) so I was interested to know what her original work would be like. I realised too late I had picked up the second instalment in a trilogy. However, that didn’t matter at all, I didn’t feel that I lost anything by not reading the first book, Wideacre. Gregory admirably pulls off a feeling of continuity while creating a story in and of itself.
It is the story of the next generation on the Wideacre estate. Beatrice Lacey has been dead for years, leaving behind her son, Richard and her niece, Julia, who narrates the novel as she grows up with Richard. Wideacre Hall has not been rebuilt after the fire and the village of Acre is destitute. Julia and Richard, raised in the Dower House by Julia’s mother, on money sent by Richard’s father, have promised to marry each other and restore the estate to its former glory. There is also a sense of magic in the novel because the villagers believe that only one of the children can be the favoured child of the title – only one will have inherited the sight and Beatrice’s gift with the land.
I fully expected to like the novel. The idea of Julia and Richard being haunted by Beatrice, the promise of magic and the pull of their destinies thrilled me. These are the novel’s successes. Beatrice is a living presence in the novel and the magic never descends into the sort of cloaks and broomsticks stuff that thrives in Harry Potter but would have been out of place here. The magic is of an earthy kind, based on old country traditions and rituals, like crowning the Queen of the May. Dreams that come true are about as outlandish as it gets, but I have to admit that it can all get very twee. The depiction of poverty in Acre, for example, didn’t quite sit right with me.
Which is where my frustration comes in. A lot is said about the absolute poverty of the village of Acre. A lot is said too about their mistrust and dislike of the Laceys after Beatrice turned from the golden girl who made the land grow into a power mad harpy. But when it comes down to it, the villagers’ trust seems to be as easily won as their bellies are filled. It all just felt too easy and convenient. I’m also still uncertain about how the Laceys’ actually manage to acquire enough cash to help the village and themselves after so long in poverty. But this was a minor point really, I could have lived with these convenient plot devices, but I couldn’t live with the characters.
Again, a lot is said about them but actions speak louder than words and I couldn’t tally their behaviour with what Julia told me. Julia says that her cousin Richard is handsome, charming and loved by all. Why he was so universally adored I just couldn’t fathom. It’s true that his cruelty is generally – and secretly – aimed at Julia, but really, he’s such a smarmy little so-and-so that I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. Then there is Julia, into whose company I was forced because she’s narrating the story. She goes off to Bath with her Mama and returns – so she says – utterly in love, a stronger and more confident young woman, able to stand up her bullying younger cousin Richard. Utter tosh. She’s as weak and simpering as she ever was and drove me completely up the wall. Even when she sees Ricard for what he is, she goes running to him. The strength she says she has is never in evidence, she is completely delusional. “Sensible” really isn’t Julia’s middle name, but “Repetitive” is – I was barely a third of the way through the book before I was heartily sick of hearing about her being “A Lacey on the land!”
Julia is not the only one that falls prey to a lack of continuity, even her mother and Uncle John say one thing and do another. When her dreams start coming true and Julie says she has the sight, they think she’s losing her mind and pack her off to a doctor in Bath. However, they shrug and get over it when Julia “stands up to them” a little while later.
I finished the book with a scream of frustration. Somewhere in here is a really good story, about the magic of the land, about superstition and control, about two cousins vying for first position. But thanks to the simpering miss who narrates the story, it wasn’t one I really enjoyed.
Harper Collins, 2006. ISBN-10: 0007230028. 640pp.