Downton Look-Alikes

I am both a critic and fan of the TV show Downton Abbey. I get a bit weary of the heightened drama by the end of each season, but I love the character development (especially of Lady Mary in Season 2), the compelling historical events, the beautiful setting, and the great acting. It’s the one TV show I watched last Fall. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who don’t watch it and go into a bookstore these days. DVDs of the show are on display, books about the “real” Downton Abbey are on the required reading table for high school students, and signs saying “If you like Downton Abbey” point to books with lavish settings and old stone mansions on their covers. I have to admit, I got drawn in by that last table. I wrote down two titles to check on at the library based on their “Downton-ish” appearance. Though neither came close to being as captivating as Downton Abbey, they did have the feel and the enthralling history of that time surrounding the first World War.

I’ll start with the one I didn’t actually enjoy. The Last Summer is set in Deyning Park, an English country estate. The title refers to the opening of the book, when the first World War has yet to begin and all the young people surrounding the main character, Clarissa, are frivolous and free. Clarissa is the youngest of the family of the Earl of Deyning. She is beautiful and thoughtful and a bit forward thinking. Yes, she will remind you strongly of Lady Sybil if you read the book. What’s more, she falls in love with the housekeeper’s son, whose name is…Tom. I can’t handle it. I feel like screaming “plagiarism!” Which may be unfair–for all I know, the author, Judith Kinghorn, may have started this book years before Downton Abbey aired. Maybe. After the first few chapters, the plot similarities stop, for the most part. The book continues as purely a love story. The Deyning family moves to London for the duration of the War, and the changes in the world after World War I affect them all. Tom and Clarissa’s love life is far from easy, so if you enjoy heart wearying love stories set in historical places, you will probably like this book. The similarities between Clarissa and Lady Sybil quickly disappear. I don’t think the book was all bad, but I had trouble finding any depth to the main love relationship beyond physical attraction. The lack of constancy in loving relationships throughout the book is also a negative to me. But the contrast of how the wealthy, “old money” families lived before the war and after the war was interesting. I’d give it 2.5 out of 5 stars, based more on the plot and characters than the actual writing.

The other book I read that tasted strongly of Downton is The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons. The novel’s setting begins in the Vienna of 1938. Elise Landau is the daughter of wealthy and artistic parents. Her mother, an opera singer and her father, a novelist, sense the changing political climate and send their young daughter to England, promising to follow soon. Elise is one of many wealthy Jewish immigrants who leave their native country and landscape of jewels and champagne for the English landscape of serving tea on the lawn between croquet games. Elise has a lot to learn, but the reader will find her likable in her determination to do what she has to without losing herself. If I had never watched Downton Abbey, I probably would have liked this book better. I couldn’t separate the Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey and the Butler in this story in my mind. They were one and the same to me. Otherwise, the characters were very different. The house was run in the same manner, the divisions between upstairs and downstairs were a big part of the plot, but the book is more comparable to Jane Eyre or Rebecca than to the show Downton Abbey. I liked this book for its setting and for the main character, Elise. It’s not a classic in the making, but it’s a good light read.

If you’re suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawals, these books could get you through until Season 4 begins. I think that going back to literature that was actually written in the early 1900s is an even better fix. Try Howard’s EndThe House of Mirth (not English but similar society drama), or Love in a Cold Climate.

     

If you haven’t read Rebecca by Daphne DuMurier, it is a classic that will never be outdated. It has influenced literature greatly and the style of books coming out now such as The House at Tyneford and The Violets of March are quite similar.

Happy English summer reading!

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A Few Great Mid-century Midwestern Books

Most of the posts I’ve written so far have focused on recently released literature (well, at least released in the last five years).  While I like to read new releases and be one of the first to discover great books, most of the books I really love have been around for 50-100 years. Or more. Just that smell of old pages between hardback covers makes me smile deep down inside.  Last fall, I read two great books written in the mid-1900s and set in the mid-west: Heat Lightning by Helen Hull and Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.

photo Heat Lightning follows the journey of Amy Norton, a 35-year-old wife and mother of two, as she travels from her home in New York to visit her family and hometown in the midwest.  She is basically having a mid-life crisis.  Her kids are old enough to be independent (during the book, they’re at summer camp) and her husband has been distant and is camping while she travels. At the beginning of the book, you meet the Westovers, Amy’s family, who live in the small town where Amy grew up. I felt like I knew them as soon as they were introduced. Helen Hull did character descriptions and development so well.  Forgive me for throwing Downton Abbey into this post that really has nothing to do with Downton Abbey, but if you’re a fan of that show, Madame Westover will remind you of Dowager Countess. She is the book’s best character. As the plot moves forward, the Westovers and their endearing characters and family relationships becoming the heart of the book.  However, a careful reader can see Amy’s spirit returning as she figures her past and present out at the same time.

Rachel of the Book Snob blog wrote that Heat Lightning “certainly should be a classic of ordinary American life.” Now, take into consideration that she is British. =) But I enjoy her book reviews and share some of her book tastes, which is why I decided I had to read Heat Lightning. The only publisher currently releasing it is Persephone, but I got mine used on Amazon.   There are several themes, all well developed, but all very subtle. You could miss them completely if you’re just reading the book for its plot, which is, frankly, not exactly gripping (and that’s fine by me).  One theme pointed out in the Persephone edition’s preface by Patricia McClelland Miller is “how can women flourish when they are expected to make most of the adjustments in situations which really require the efforts of both men and women?” I don’t know if I noticed that theme as much as I noticed the theme of reconciling your childhood home with the home you set out to make with your husband and children.  However, I can think back on the number of couples introduced throughout the book and the life transitions each couple was navigating, and I think I’d like to re-read the book and focus on how Hull presents the husband-wife relationship. All in all, the book is both realistic and favorable when presenting marriage relationships. It kind of reminded me of Ilyrian Spring by Ann Bridge.

The theme that permeates almost all midwestern literature is that of town versus country. The characters are firmly planted in the farmland or rural town where they are born, but dream of something that they think must be greater (the city). Or they’ve been to the city but realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and there’s a part of them that will never be at home unless they’re in the rural setting they came from. The town vs. country debate is a part of Heat Lightning, but it is more central to the plot in Winter Wheat. 

Winter WheatEllen Webb is a girl on the cusp of something totally new and great to her: college in a big city. That is, if the winter wheat crop is good. She has lived on a wheat farm in Montana her whole life with her East Coast father and Russian mother. Her parents met in World War II and they don’t seem to have much in common from Ellen’s perspective. Their relationship is the crux of the book. Ellen tries to reconcile her identity and the direction of her life through her parents’ relationship. She wants to discover that her parents truly love one another, but the more Ellen learns, the more discouraged she feels about love in general and the love that created her. Also, Ellen has a hard time figuring out where she really comes from. She longs to understand and appreciate her roots, but she only knows Montana. I enjoyed following Ellen’s perspective as it went through different seasons of being completely attached to detached to her home and her family. She loves them, she hates them, she wants to understand them, she wants to get away from them.  Along with the importance of figuring out where you’re really from,  the responsibility of a girl to make her own way in the world in the post-war culture is a very prominent idea. Mildred Walker gave Ellen Webb a strong voice and character. Even when Ellen is troubled and directionless, I just knew she would fight her way through to be strong and ready to reach for a life she wants to live. The tone of the book was kind of lonely, as there are so few characters that really play into the plot or have much dialogue. I’ve never been to Montana, but I think the loneliness of the story and the setting are key to the book’s themes.

I enjoyed both of these books, but I liked Heat Lightning the best out of the two. Hull’s thoughtful, tender writing is beautiful and I can’t wait to find another one of her books.

The Magic of Ordinary DaysAnd if you’re not into “older” books but think a novel set in the midwest in the 1930s or 40s sounds like just the kind of book you want to read, check out Ann Howard Creel’s The Magic of Ordinary Days. Written in 2001 and made into a Hallmark movie in 2005, I think it’s a beautiful book. It also explores themes like the loneliness and simplicity of mid-western farming and the importance of relationships that are built and tried by hardships and how they hold up or break down. I have already read it twice and will probably read it again someday.

Happy reading!