Thanks to Katie Green at Pan Macmillan/Picador. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Having browsed through a few of the Amazon reviews available for this book, I’m seeing a theme emerging and an agreement with some of the points I am about to make. I think a lot of people were a bit disappointed with this book, and currently its average rating is only 3.6 stars (3 stars on Goodreads). Some of the reviews are a bit harsh, but I can see why there is such a mixture of opinions.
Author: Molly McGrann
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Picador; Main Market Ed. edition (26 Mar. 2015)
On a hot July day, three elderly people are found dead in a dilapidated house in Primrose Hill. Reading the story in a newspaper as she prepares to leave the country, Marie Gillies has an unshakable feeling that she is somehow to blame.
How did these three people come to live together, and how did they all die at once? The truth lies in a very different England, and in the secret world of the ladies of the house…
I don’t really know what I expected from this novel, but the story itself was a little convoluted and a bit removed from my expectations. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The novel tells the stories, primarily, of Rita and Annetta, high-class prostitutes who are still living in the brothel they have called home. Now it’s just a house, and they live there alone with Joseph (the son of the brothel’s leading lady and its proprietor). One of these women suffers from dementia, and the other is dying. Through a series of vignettes we get a sense of their lives, of who they are and how they have come to be living in this house together, even into old age. I think this novel is what I’d call, jokingly, a “Coming of AGE” novel. A good idea, just not what I was expecting.
What I liked:
1. The past
Some of the scenes set in the characters’ pasts are the most interesting. Although I like the retrospective telling of the story, the idea that these characters have continued to age and grow after their experiences, I found myself better captured by the scenes where Rita and Annetta were young, and where they were still struggling with the way their lives were unfolding. I felt trapped with Annetta in the dark world she had come from, and I felt sympathy for the young Rita who could never seem to get what she wanted most: human connection.
2. The writing
Molly McGrann writes beautifully, and I did enjoy her descriptions and turns of phrase. There were sections of the book that were very adept at making me feel very strongly, but sadly there was not enough of this beautiful writing to overshadow the problems I had with the plot.
What I didn’t like:
1. Older Rita
I quite liked young Rita. She was sparky and angry and clever, if vain and selfish. But old Rita – she is all her negative qualities multiplied by five. I understand that this is probably the point, and that I’m probably missing some big trick, but old Rita really just didn’t do it for me, and by the end of the novel I have to confess I wasn’t sad that she was dead. Oops!
2. The ending
Endings are a big a deal, and this one just didn’t cut it for me. I felt that the climax of the novel happened too late, while simultaneously being too short. At the end I felt a little cheated and dazed and I had to spend a good twenty minutes just thinking things through – but not necessarily in a good way.
The novel is perhaps a little ambitious, telling too many characters’ stories in less than 300 pages. I think it could have benefitted from fewer intersecting story-lines and more focus on each one. For instance, given that the blurb makes mention of this “unshakable feeling” experienced by Marie Gillies about the deaths in the house, I think I expected the book to explore her guilt or something more than it does. Marie, for me, was nothing more than a passing fancy. And as for Marie’s mother, and the scenes with Joseph… I actually had trouble remembering Joseph’s name, so I don’t think they really did anything for me.
But some of the scenes are wonderfully captivating and the writing really is beautiful. It’s only a short book, and I did enjoy it. I actually read it in one sitting. Definitely worth a read but perhaps ultimately not a favourite.