My fifth account of a book on the Romantic Novel of the Year long list, though actually this is one I had already read before the list was published.
THE SUMMER HOUSE by Mary Nichols spans World Wars 1 and 2, metropolis and village, big house and slum terrace. It was a time of enormous change, in social conventions, moral values, class structures and education and one of the many delights of this book is the author’s unobtrusive but faultless sense of place and time.
Essentially, this is the story of tragedy in three women’s lives – and how they survive and grow afterwards. The constraints of the times affect the practical outcomes. But the feelings, described here with a restraint that makes them all the more painful, are universal. During the Great War young Lady Helen marries a man her family feels at home with and then, finding him a stranger, falls in love with someone else. Her family cannot permit her to keep a child that is not her husband’s, so she is hustled into something close to prison until the birth and then the child is taken away. The moral disdain of those employed to help her through the birth is chilling but the withdrawal of affection from her family is worse and rings heartbreakingly true. Eventually, widowed and orphaned by the War, Helen sets out to find her daughter. But the lies she has been told, and holes in the records make it very difficult – and when she does, she has to confront a whole human dilemma.
Anne sacrifices everything, including the emotional honesty of her marriage and her own self-aproval, to have a child. And Laura, the precious and beloved daughter, discovers when Anne dies that she has been lied to throughout her life. The relationship of the three women is spiky and difficult and utterly believable. They may be jealous, they are certainly fearful, and they have deep wounds to deal with, but they all, in their own way, try to be reasonable, even to those who can hurt them. Laura, caught up in the consequences of old secrets, does cry out at one point, ‘It’s like a contagion, spreading and spreading. I don’t feel like being fair. No one’s been fair to me.’ But these women are practical and honest and, in the end, Laura is fair, in spite of intense provocation. It is nothing short of heroic.
The most important love affair – well, this is long-listed for the Romantic Novel of the Year, after all – is mainly told from the hero’s point of view, and is a real heart-turner. He is one of the good guys, quiet and responsible and outshone by flashier chaps – at least two of them in this book. And then the awful thing happens and he starts to think of himself as a monster.
A rich, understated book of many dimensions – including a whole East Anglian village coming to terms with the wartime arrival of American troops. It is a five handkerchief weepie along the way with, ultimately a deeply satisfying resolution, in which steadfastness is rewarded and endurance justified. A feast
DECLARATION OF INTEREST Mary Nichols is an author I am proud to call a mate. She is also a Treasure of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. In 2009 she had three books, all in different genres, published within six weeks of each other and celebrated her diamond wedding anniversary. She got a card from the Queen – and a blog post from us.