The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

January 8, 2014

house at tyneford Plot summary (from the publisher): With the advent of World War II fast approaching in Europe, Elise Landau and her family realize that it is no longer safe for Jews in Austria. Elise’s father, Julian, and her mother Anna, a novelist and a singer respectively, urge her to advertise herself as a domestic servant in England and trade the loving, bourgeois lifestyle to which she was born for an interim life of servitude away from the Nazi threat. Traveling with only her clothes, a few smuggled keepsakes, and Julian’s secret unpublished manuscript hidden in an old viola, Elise embarks with great trepidation for her new life at the estate of Tyneford, owned by Christopher Rivers.

Between worrying about her still endangered parents and struggling to adjust to her new life, Elise learns very quickly how much she has left behind. But when Mr. Rivers’ fun–loving son, Kit, returns home, a romance erupts between him and Elise that challenges the aristocratic orthodoxy. Despite his devotion, Kit gets pulled into the war, in a test of their love and the fading of a bygone era.

The House at Tyneford is a story of the possibility of transcending social and class boundaries, as well as a novel about tradition, change, loss, and enduring love.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I like novels in which old English houses play major roles–especially when the houses have names: Howards End, Brideshead, Manderley, etc. Although not nearly in the same literary class as those other homes, I thought Solomons did a nice job of describing Tyneford and making it sound worthy of a centuries-old estate being passed down from generation to generation. I can even imagine Tyneford being around now, with the current inhabitants checking for homeowners insurance rates at this site and hoping to stave off foreclosure in today’s poor economic conditions.
  • Elise was an okay protagonist. She was kind of annoying at times, but I can attribute most of that to her youth and inexperience. All in all she wasn’t a terrible character to spend a few hours with.
  • I didn’t mind that Elise got together with Mr. Rivers at the end. IMO, this pairing was telegraphed from the first moment the two characters met (I figured there was a reason the author went to such great pains to point out how young Mr. Rivers was), so I always regarded Kit as the interloper anyway.
  • I liked that the novel didn’t have a completely happy nor a completely tragic ending. Elise lost Julian and Anna (her parents), and never got to say goodbye to them or even really learn what happened to them. But she reconciled with her sister and was happily married to Mr. Rivers (though they lost Tyneford to the British army). That felt more realistic than one extreme or the other.

Disliked:

  • For some reason, I hated that Elise referred to her parents as Julian and Anna. It was confusing at the beginning of the novel, and then it just became irritating. Again, I don’t know why this sort of thing bothered me, as usually it doesn’t.
  • I don’t understand what happened to the novel in the viola. How did every single page end up completely blank? Unless I somehow skipped a few pages while reading, the author never fully explained that. She offered speculation (via Elise’s character) that perhaps the salt air had something to do with it, but I don’t know if that was supposed to be the real answer or not. I guess it could have been. After all, the author did “foreshadow” this event by showing how some volumes in Mr. Rivers’s library had fared the worse because of the room’s proximity to the sea. Still, a more definitive answer would have been appreciated.
  • Speaking of the novel, why didn’t Elise open it and read it earlier? She was forever bemoaning the fact that she missed her parents so much and longed to hear from them. You’d think she’d have turned to her father’s words (in the novel) for comfort well before she actually did.
  • The “upstairs-downstairs” romance between Kit and Elise played out in a very predictable, fairly cringeworthy manner, complete with bitchy reactions from the local socialites, jealousy from the other household staff, and disapproval from Kit’s father. Yawn.
  • The war seemed so far way, and the author failed to paint a clear picture of how dangerous Elise’s situation was. Looking back, the only imminent “threat” I can recall was that RIDICULOUS scene of a German warplane chasing Elise down in an open field and shooting at her. I laughed out loud at that because it was so absurd — but I’m sure that’s not the reaction the author was striving for.
  • Nothing about Kit and Elise’s courtship indicated true love. As I mentioned above, I figured Elise and Mr. Rivers were the true endgame, which made it even harder to suffer through all the Kit and Elise scenes.

Rating:

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons was more of a romance novel than I bargained for. I was hoping for a more balanced presentation of life at Tyneford along with plenty of news of the war, but that didn’t really happen. And the romance aspect wasn’t even that interesting, as the author spent way more time on the red herring couple (Kit and Elise) than on the true pairing (Elise and Mr. Rivers). Still, there were enough good things about the novel to warrant a passable rating. I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

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