Sunday, March 17, 2013

Summerset Abbey by T.J. Brown

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 23, 2013

Rowena and Victoria, daughters to the third son of the Earl of Summerset, have always treated their housekeeper’s daughter, Prudence, like a sister. But when their father dies and they move in with their uncle’s family in a much stricter household, Prudence is relegated to the downstairs maids’ quarters, much to the girls’ shock and dismay. The impending war offers each girl hope for a more modern future, but the ever-present specter of class expectations makes it difficult for Prudence to maintain a foot in both worlds. Vividly evoking both time and place and filled with authentic dialogue and richly detailed atmosphere, Summerset Abbey is a charming and timeless historical debut.

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La Russe by William McGregor Paxton
I've wrestled with my feelings on T.J. Brown's Summerset Abbey several times and I think I've finally put my finger on the problem. I desperately wanted to love this book, the time period offers a wealth of material, but that being said, I found the piece much more of a challenge than I'd originally anticipated and didn't end it as satisfied as I'd hoped.   

By far my favorite aspect  of the book is the obvious care Brown put in to defining the social classes. Lately I've come across a lot of historic pieces that blur the line between master and servant, choosing to disregard the social stratification that existed between the two. Brown favors history and for that, I am deeply appreciative. The stark contrast between the Buxtons, their household staff and the citizens of Summerset is abundantly clear from the first page to the last, as finite in her fiction as it is in fact. 

I also greatly enjoyed the story as it related to Prudence. All things considered it is probably an unfair assessment, but she is without a doubt my favorite of the three girls. Alone and without a male benefactor Prudence's position is precarious from the get-go and offers the most to the reader in terms of emotional drama, intrigue and movement. 

In contrast Victoria, though interesting, is almost dull. She blends too easily into the background of the story, her sweet and gentle demeanor overshadowed by her cast mates. I can only hope we see more of her in future installments, that her character becomes more complex and that she enjoy the same prominence as her counterparts in Brown's future works. It would be a shame to see her continually lost in the shuffle.

Last I come to Rowena. I think Brown was shooting for conflicted, but something must have been lost in translation as I found her apathetic, spoiled and indecisive. More than that though, Rowena is entirely one dimensional. Where Victoria barely towed the line, Rowena jumped clear over it, frequently leaving me bored and yawning.

Perhaps the only thing as disappointing to me as Rowena's character was the ending. The revelation surrounding Prudence felt rushed and disjointed. Those characters to which it pertained were not fully developed in my mind and their sudden importance was particularly jarring. 

I haven't yet given up hope for the series and though I am optimistic about book two, A Bloom in Winter, I will certainly be approaching it with a moderate degree of caution.

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Was there really a fundamental difference between those of the lower class and those of the upper class, aside from the circumstances of one's birth, something over which a person has no control?
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1 comment:

anotherlookbooks said...

Great review, and good points about how class differences are often minimized/sidestepped in historical fiction. It sort of reminds me of how characters in historical novels tend to be "ahead of their time"...because oh yes, that's right, they're actually a creation of our era! Then again, it allows me to appreciate authentic depictions of history even more when I do come across them.

Love your site! I can't wait to explore it more.