Vulpes Libris

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.

The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

ImageHandlerAt this time of year, I like to suggest books that you might enjoy snuggled up by the fire, with a mug of hot chocolate and hand-knitted socks. This is just such a book. In 1938, Elise Landau is sent by her family in Vienna to work as a housemaid at Tyneford. With her she brings her father’s latest novel, hidden inside her sister’s old viola.

This book is wonderful because it manages to tread the delicate line between fluff and tragedy. Elise is a charming narrator and I loved that she was the tubby, unmusical, apparently untalented one in her family. She develops no sudden flair of talent in the book, but remains ordinary throughout. Yet she has extraordinary strength, fury and a compelling desire to survive and simply be happy. I adored her.

As one of the Jewish bourgeois, Elise never felt her Jewishness, her family were never religious, her father was an atheist. But during their last evening together, they and their friends gather for Passover with a poignant reverence. It was one of the quietest and most moving sections of the book as they embrace that which is driving them from their homeland. In England, Elise claims her Jewishness as she has never done before, refusing to say grace and attend church.

Through our lovely narrator we are quickly introduced to her family, all of whom won me over. Then we journey across the sea and meet the collection of odd characters at Tyneford. There is Mr Wrexham, destined to be a fisherman, who actually became the uptight butler. Mr Rivers, the stoic and charming lord of the manor. Then there is Kit, the dashing son and heir. You can see where this is going and with the impending war you can probably guess how it’s going to end, but the journey will still catch your breath and break your heart.

Though some of the characters are stereotypes – the stiff butler, the hard-working housekeeper – others are so wonderfully drawn and engaging that you genuinely fall in love with them. Solomons’ describes the Vienna of Elise’s youth and the England of the war with such colour that you can almost smell the salt in the air.

An intriguing thing I discovered in the author interview at the end of the book was that the story was based on elements from Solomons’ own history – Tyneford is based on Tyneham, which really was taken over during the Second World War. Her great aunts were separated by the war just as Elise and her sister Margot are. This interweaving of fact and fiction creates a story that feels all too real. I would encourage you to buy the edition with the extras at the end if, like me, you are fascinated by what went into writing a book.

This book left me hankering for a day on the English coast and a trip to Vienna. I even half fancied a toasted marzipan sandwich.

Sceptre, 2011. ISBN-10:0340995696. 416pp.

7 comments on “The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

  1. Chris Harding
    December 5, 2011

    Niks, I love your comment about it ‘treading a fine line between fluff and tragedy’ – wish I’d said that! I was intrigued by the connection with Tyneham,and the way it became a lost world, and I thought that knowing what happened there gave the book an added dimension.

  2. Chris Harding
    December 5, 2011

    Delicate, not fine…sorry… too early in the morning!

  3. Jackie
    December 5, 2011

    This sounds like one that I’d definitely be interested in. I also like how the main character is overweight & at no point undergoes a makeover, as so many films & books dictate. Interesting how the author weaves family history into the novel. Your enthusiasm makes this sound like a very appealing book, even if it does deal with such dark days in history.

  4. kirstyjane
    December 5, 2011

    I agree with Jackie — the lack of a makeover is already a major plus for me! This sounds lovely, thank you Nikki for reviewing it.

  5. Hilary
    December 6, 2011

    Another reader here looking forward to getting my hands on this. It seems reminiscent of Kate Morton’s immensely readable works, though with a bit of added grit in the mix. Thanks for an excellent and alluring review, Nikki!

  6. Lisa Glass
    December 7, 2011

    Great review, Nikki. It sounds like a moving, yet uplifting kind of read.

    Btw, I love extras at the end of a book (although I realise some readers loathe them), so that’d definitely be a plus for me. What do you think of the cover btw? It’s very pretty, but do you think it’s in keeping with the content of the book?

  7. niks87
    December 11, 2011

    There was a part of me that was waiting for the makeover. Due to everything that happens in the book, she does lose some weight, but that’s not really made much of and it’s not just done so that she can be “pretty”. I think her apparent “averageness” actually makes the romance better.

    Lisa, I love the extras too, because I’m so nosey! Wolf Hall had especially good extras, reading about the reasons behind Mantell’s decisions was fascinating. I think the cover reflects the fluffier, romantic and sunny side of the book. But doesn’t really highlight that a lot of this book, a lot of the plot, in fact, hinges on lose, anger and complete heartbreak.

    Hilary, yes! There’s definitely something Kate Morton about it, but with more of a bite.

    Chris, Tyneham is fascinating. Strangely enough, there’s apparently been an article about it in my Nan’s magazine this week…

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This entry was posted on December 5, 2011 by in Entries by Nikki and tagged , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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