Sunday, May 5, 2013

What I've Read Recently

What I've Read Recently . . .

Habits of the House by Fay Weldon -- Historical Fiction

In 1899, land values have plummeted and British aristocrats must make their money by marrying into it. Lord Robert, the Earl of Dilberne married the illegitimate daughter of a coal baron, whose wealth sustained the family for a time. They are happy partying, gambling with the Prince of Wales (who is a carbon copy of his great-uncle George) and whoring - for the most part. Son Arthur enjoys tinkering with steam powered motor cars and daughter Rosina has declared herself a New Woman and is against everything her parents stand for. Still, life goes on as normal upstairs, supported by the downstairs staff. Now it seems some unpleasant business in South America has put the family in difficult circumstances. Robert owes money to Mr. Eric Baum, a Jewish financier. Eric is willing to forgive the debt, for the price of an invitation for his wife to a social gathering. Lady Isobel is horrified at the idea and decides a better solution is to marry Arthur off to an heiress. Her maid Grace is sent to compile a list of eligible ladies and comes up with one Minnie O'Brien, an American-Irish meat-packing heiress. Grace, jealous because she once had a fling with Arthur, tries to discourage the match but Lady Isobel is determined. Minnie has come to England to recover from a scandal which left her reputation and her heart, in shatters. Her overbearing mother is determined to marry her off to a title, if she doesn't cause a scandal with her loud-mouth ways and uncouth manners. Arthur is reluctant to marry and leave off his mistress Flora, but thinks there may be some way to save the family and keep Flora satisfied. When he meets Minnie, he begins to think marriage isn't such a bad idea after all, but his meddling sister may derail all his plans by spilling secrets never meant to be shared. 

This story claims to be for fans of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs but is hardly comparable. It made me realize why I fell in love with Downton Abbey in the first place - the well-drawn characters that made me care for them. Sadly, this book is lacking in appealing characters. They are all cardboard stock characters that embody every single bad cliche of the late Victorian era. They are all selfish and unappealing. At first I liked Rosina, but she proved to be petty and just as fluff brained as the rest of the family. I did like Minnie and I cared about what happened to her but she appears cold at times. The characters are obsessed with s-e-x. They think about it, talk about it and do it all the time. (There's a shocking scene with Arthur, Flora and another man.) The downstairs characters aren't fleshed out enough to care anything about. They flit around in the background, aside from Grace, who appears as a minor character. The story is told from first person limited jumping between the thoughts of each character not giving the reader time to come to know any of them well. The plot is ridiculous and ends abruptly with a twist that didn't fit what had just happened in the previous chapter. There are some inaccuracies : the characters are referred to as gentry when they are actually aristocrats and I think there are some other mistakes, not to mention the inaccurate characters. I think Mrs. O'Brien was supposed to be modeled after popular portrayals of Molly Brown but Americans were actually more stuffy than their British counterparts. Needless to say, I just didn't enjoy this novel at all and won't be reading the other two in the series. I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone who claims to enjoy well-written stories.

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