Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What I Read Last Weekend

What I Read Last Weekend . . .

Ashenden: A Novel by Elizabeth Wilhide -- Historical House Fiction

Charlie, a middle-aged photojournalist and American transplant and his sister Ros have inherited a crumbling, derelict old English mansion from their late aunt. The house will cost an enormous amount of money to fix and Charlie thinks selling is probably the best option, but Ros isn't so sure. Ashden was built in the Georgian era for Sir Frederick More of Bath stone by the famous architect James Woods. Woods loved the designing and the building of the house. The house changed hands many times before Aunt Reggie and Uncle Hugh purchased it in the 1950s and lovingly restored it with antiques from all over Britain. The house longs to be lived in again but with today's economy being what it is, that may not be possible. This book is a collection of memories about a fictional house through 250 years of history. The chapters are short and episodic, telling of one family's time spent in the house over a chapter or two before moving on to the next occupants. I really didn't like this style of storytelling. Just when I became somewhat attached to the characters, wondering what would happen to them, they were dropped. Any sort of coherent plot was overlooked in favor of many, may architectural and restoration details. Some of the characters seem to be introduced randomly but a few are connected in the end. I found Charlie to be an annoying character, too obsessed with his young wife and his sister was even more annoying when she bothered to appear in the story at all. I would have liked to have met Reggie sooner and learned more about her at the beginning of her life and tell her story interspersed with the story of the house with more of a plot. She was so important to Charlie but the reason really failed to come through in the plot. Some of the characters seem to be introduced randomly but a few are connected in the end. I found Charlie to be an annoying character, too obsessed with his young wife and his sister was even more annoying when she bothered to appear in the story at all.If you like antique archeology, home restoration, architecture and touring historic houses just for the architecture and collections, you'll enjoy this book. I enjoy the stories about the people more than the architectural details and so I did not really like this book. I found it rather boring. It is not for Downton Abbey fans. 

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin -- Historical Fiction

Young Cora Cash, the only daughter of Winthrop Cash, son of the flour king, is the prettiest, richest girl in Gilded Age society, probably even the world. Everyone wants to attend Mrs. Cash's lavish parties in Newport and New York. Cora, however, feels stifled by her mother and longs to be free. The day after her coming out party, Cora and her mother are sailing for England to find Cora a titled husband. Cora hopes for help from her friend Teddy Van Der Leyden but he would rather run off to Paris and become an artist than marry Cora. A hunting accident soon after her arrival in England, throws Cora into high society when she's rescued by Ivo Maltravers, the Duke of Wareham. He's handsome and single and most importantly, in need of Cora's cash. The Duke and his ancestral home soon seduce Cora into falling in love with Ivo. They begin married life blissfully, but Ivo's mother is determined to make life difficult for Cora. Cora is an outsider and she doesn't understand the rules of English society. She thought Ivo loved her for her forthright nature, but then he prickles up when she goes against tradition. If only she has friends to help her through. She tries to befriend her dowdy stepsister-in-law, Sybil and Charlotte Beauchamp, her hostess at the hunting party that day. The Prince of Wales seems to enjoy her company, but her only real confidante is her maid, Bertha. Bertha, a colored woman from South Carolina has risen to unexpected heights being lady's maid to a Duchess. She is torn between her roots and her future while she attempts to make a home in England. She sees and hears things belowstairs that force her to confront what she wants out of life. Over the course of a year, Cora too is forced to grow up and discover that there are some things in life money can not buy. This story reads like Edith Wharton fan fiction. Take one naive heroine, marry her off to a Duke with a domineering mother and stir. However, I actually liked this story more than the Buccaneers. The Bucaneers was a difficult read knowing that disaster lay ahead. This story has more nuances and complications. There are also less characters to keep track of. The ending was unusual and not what I expected or would have written but it worked for the plot. I was glad Cora made the decision she did even though it may not have been the choice that readers wanted or expected. I was hoping... SPOILER ALERT Cora and Ivo would work on their marriage. I don't think he loved her but he wanted to and I think he could come to. I liked Cora, even though she was a spoiled, naive girl. I felt for her because of her innocence. Some things were painfully obvious and she was left in the dark and I truly felt sorry for her. She wanted happiness so badly and her mother was so awful that she deserved a happy ending. I did not like Ivo. He's moody, brooding and sometimes cruel. He's enigmatic and we never really get to know his real personality. I thought he was needlessly cruel to Cora at times. He married her for her refreshing personality but also expected her to know how to carry on like a Duchess. In many ways he was worse than the indifferent husbands of The Buccaneers. I wasn't crazy about Bertha either. She seemed to forget where she came from for awhile and she seemed to deliberately naive at times. Her character experiences a lot of growth though and she becomes a better, stronger woman at the end but I think more time could have been spent developing that aspect of her life rather than her romance. Downton Abbey fans wishing for a prequel will love this look at how Robert and Cora Crawley's early married life may have been. The historical details are wonderful. I could easily pinpoint all the Newport homes and society people San Souchi and the Cashes were based on. Though the plot is a bit somber, this book is a fun read for Downton Abbey fans. Those who love the lavish Gilded Age lifestyles will also love this book. Edith Wharton fans may also like this book.

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