Thwarted romance, war, and power-mad business moguls collide in this story, set in London in 1939 during the opening days of the Blitz. The basic story is set within a contemporary frame, and the book opens with Rachael Howell Price driving her elderly grandmother, Carrie Howell, to the abandoned and decaying Theroux mansion, called Autumn Manor after Frank Theroux's wife, Autumn, who died young. Carrie recalls the house's glory day, the splendor of the furnishings, the manicured lawns and carefully tended flower beds, the lavish parties when the rich and powerful drank champagne and laughed to blot out the approach of war. She tells Rachael that Frank Theroux, once a powerful businessman, hanged himself in that house. It gives Rachael the shivers, remembering ghost stories about the mansion from her childhood.
The story then flashes back to 1939 with a scene that could be out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel a decade after The Great Gatsby. Frank and his only child, James, await the arrival of guests for a large ball at Autumn Manor. The tale gets tangled here. James is anxious to see Alexandra Taylor, daughter of Frank's business rival, Samuel Taylor. In a twentieth-century version of Romeo and Juliet, James has asked Taylor for Lexie's hand and been refused, but he plans to propose anyway. Taylor has already promised Lexie's hand, at birth, to Anson Howell, son of his partner. Taylor plans to unite the Howell and Taylor families through marriage as well as business, thus ensuring his family's fortune. Lexie plans to accept James's proposal. An admirably strong and independent girl, she will marry for love, not business purposes or for the sake of her family. Meanwhile, Lexie's younger sister, Carrie, has a crush on James who, she claims, was her friend first. She wants Lexie to marry Anson, so she can have James; Lexie wants Carrie to marry Anson to mollify their father. As the opening scene hints, Carrie eventually marries Anson Howell, lives a long and happy life as a rich and comfortable woman.
The entire tone of the book changes abruptly soon after the party when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announces that Germany has invaded Poland, and England is now at war. It becomes gritty, sometimes recalling the WWI trench poetry and writings of Wilfred Owens, Rupert Brook, and Ford Maddox Ford. If nothing else, this book makes the point that war is pretty awful...and does so in grim and realistic tones.
James, a journalist, is sent overseas to cover the war—a machination achieved by Samuel Taylor's bribery of James's editor. Overcome with patriotism, James enlists and submits stories when he can. Lexie, in order to feel she is somehow helping, volunteers at the local canteen as a VAD (Volunteer Aid Detachment) but soon leaves to serve as a VAD nurse in a London hospital that sees thousands of wounded as Hitler increases the Blitz of London. James secures a seventy-two-hour leave, comes to London, and they are married. Then he is shipped overseas, and Lexie, always hoping to be closer to him, volunteers on a hospital ship.
No spoilers here, but don't expect any surprises, given the stereotyped characters and an oft-told tale in new clothes. American readers may be also be put off by British usage—single quotation marks instead of double and some strange spellings such as jewellery for jewelry, realisation for realization.
Don't get me wrong. I read this all the way through, even some of the grittiest, grimmest parts. If you've ever been truly in love, you'll identify with Lexie and James. You'll rail in anger at Lexie's father and his machinations. You'll cringe at the war scenes. The closing pages of the book bring the story full circle, returning to Rachael and Carrie. And there's your happy ending—well, bittersweet.
Australian journalist Helen Goltz has written for press and corporate clients, written and produced television and radio programs. She hold postraduate degrees in literature, communications, and media, and currently works as a radio producer. Read more about the book and author on the publisher's website.
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