Thursday, February 14, 2013

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

Or, alternately, Why I Have Trouble With Historical Fiction, Especially of The Upper Class/Servant Kind. Which is also why I can't deal with shows like Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs, much of Merchant Ivory's later stuff and so on. Because they're about these beautiful rich disaffected people and their beautiful rich problems and aren't they just like us? And no one is particularly likeable, and the servants, if they are more than backdrop, are usually shown to be totally loyal and devoted and wax on about how they're so kindly by the rich folk. And if they aren't loyal and devoted and waxing on, they're evil and scheming and getting their just rewards in the end for Getting Out of Their Place. Because apparently we all long for a time when everyone knew their place and it was a simpler world where people could be as sexist, racist, and elitest as they wanted without repercussions and wah political correctness doesn't let me get away with being a dirtbag anymore.
And generally if there's a romance between the upstairs and downstairs, isn't the upstairs so progressive and magnanimous and amazing for falling in love with a mere servant? And all I can think about is how the upstairs is being a total ass, not even trying to understand the bad situation they are putting the servant in, constantly putting them at risk for being kicked out, constantly in trouble for shirking their duties, which causes them to get even more duties as if they aren't overworked enough already, etc; because when the relationship goes south, as it totally will because you know upstairs isn't going to really risk getting disinherited over marrying a servant, they're totally going to screw the servant over and they'll never get a job in that field again and their reputation will be shot and thanks a lot for your momentary dabble in the lower classes but couldn't you have been a little more discreet about it or done it with someone outside if your own house?

So The House at Tyneford, about a girl from a wealthy "avant-garde" family that's totally perfect in every way and she's spoiled and cosseted and irritatingly immature for her age. It's Vienna at the start of WWII, and the family is Jewish. She's sent away to England for safety, and ends up as chambermaid for a manor in the country, despite never having done anything remotely related to housework before. She's so special and charming and loveable (despite her constantly complaining for pages and pages about how she didn't get the family's looks, and she's plain and chubby, how she's immature and inexperienced and of course she does; because how could we ever have a book where the heroine actually likes herself? That way lies in madness.) that the heir of the house falls in love with does his father. Which is awkward and kind of icky. I couldn't stand either the girl or the heir; and got about 150 pages in, and then just started skipping around and finally gave up. But apparently the heir dies in war, and she marries the father but doesn't get the house (the government takes it), which is naturally a complete tragedy. So there, now you don't have to read it.

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