Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Review - Manor of Secrets

Original Title: Manor of Secrets
Series: -
Author: Katherine Longshore
Published: January 28th, 2014

Publisher: Point

I think only a few times in my life I read a book as fast as this one, as it only took me two days. My main reason to grab it was because it was short, and a stand-alone (and the pretty blue dress on the cover, I confess). My very first conclusion is that it’s clear this book came out in the peak of the Downton Abbey fever, that occurred a few years ago, and took the literary world to a place in which everyone, all the sudden, wanted to read books set in the Edwardian era and the turn of the century, about the Titanic, and grand houses, aristocracy, their servants, and later, World War I. I admit, I was definitely a part of that fever, until all my favourite characters from the show died, and I was forced to calm down. Thanks a lot, Julian Fellowes.

Anyway, let’s focus. Manor of Secrets, by Katherine Longshore, is a good book, but not great. I guess the word that describes it best is decent, as I’m not impressed by this story. I feel it is very simple, and not at all memorable, as the plot points are overused, and are nothing we haven’t seen before: upstairs-downstairs forbidden relationships, the ladies’ predictable life in their ordered existence, dull suitors, overbearing parents, the world of appearances, the secrets hidden behind the family’s gilded façade… We’ve heard these songs already. And actually, as the story progressed and the secrets were revealed, I thought the story behind Charlotte’s birth was far more interesting than the plot in this entire novel, and that it could have made an awesome book all on its own, with all the elements that match the perfect period drama: illicit romance, scandal, social standing in danger… You know, the usual.

Truth be told, I liked Katherine Longshore’s writing style. There was something in the way she presented and described things that was just beautiful and enchanting. And it was that style that picked up the last couple of chapters and made them intense, emotional, and interesting, the way I wish the whole book had been. She’s definitely a good writer, with great potential. But some things felt odd, like the dialogue, as it often felt a little too modern for the time period. Also, it got a tiny bit repetitive when I was told, over and over again, about the upstairs-downstairs difference. From time to time, there was too much telling, when showing would have been a better choice. And also, as the book only has twenty-seven chapters, the actions felt a little rushed, like everything was happening too fast, and actually, a longer book not only would have added details and complexity to the story, but it would also have made me care a lot more for the characters.

Something that I realized after finishing the book, actually, was how simplified the upper class is written in this book. The house they live in doesn’t even have a fancy name, it’s just The Manor. Charlotte’s father is not even there, and much less talks; he’s just a hollow name present at dinner, and nothing else; we don’t even know what title he has (given that Charlotte has “Lady” attached to her name). The fact that this is a YA novel does not justify the lack of details in that regard. As for Charlotte’s five brothers, their sole purpose is showing us that she, as the youngest, gets forgotten most of the time, because none of them appear in the story, and the only one who does, has no dialogue, and no importance at all. He’s not even the one Frances Caldwell wants to snag! Because if that one –David– had been here, perhaps the plot could have been a little better, with richer subplots and further drama.

As I said before, this felt like a YA version of Downton Abbey. Lady Charlotte Edmonds, the protagonist, felt like both Lady Mary and Lady Sybil Crawley mashed together, combining Mary’s desire to rebel against her family’s –and society’s– expectations, and Sybil’s eagerness to see the world, to understand it and be a part of it, having a life outside the limits of the manor, and marrying for love instead of convention. Charlotte is, in a way or another, a relatable character, in despite of not standing out for her depth or her complexity. The way she talks reflects a good education in manners and social etiquette, but also, reveals that she’s just sixteen years-old. And I liked how Katherine Longshore wrote the contrast between her and Janie, who is the same age, but lives in a completely different world, with a more realistic view of life, as hers is plenty with hardships and constant work, against the dull, empty life Charlotte lives in her golden cage. It’s very well done.

Honestly, I felt bad for Charlotte, being friendless, starved for affection, always having to watch her every step and control her tongue, living off her appearance and her marriageability, and having the sole company of her imagination to escape to sunnier places and perspectives.

Charlotte perched on the edge of her chair and looked out over the Tudor knot garden, all the hedges arranged in strict lines and bisected by clean gravel pathways. All of them leading nowhere.

That is one powerful image, reflecting how she feels, and how her life is. A perfectly ordered existence made to be enjoyed and watched, but nothing else, and from which there is no escape. The fact of having everything she could ever need, like money, a roof over her head, food, clothing, and all that, doesn’t take away the fact that she lives a dull existence, bored out of her mind. Who could blame her for daydreaming and imagining adventures and romance like that, far away from the stifling Manor? But even that is forbidden. Any notion of romance is out of the question in a world in which the reasons to get married are convenience, and dowries. But, although, yes, this is a difficult life to live, Charlotte is overly dramatic! Some things about her were plain exaggerated, like when she convinces Janie to visit her in her room during the afternoon, against the rules, she says yes, and it goes:

Charlotte almost swept Janie into another waltz, right there in the kitchen. She was making a difference in her own life. She was making things happen. She felt she could make anything happen.

Really? That much? I mean, I get that she’s happy and excited, but oh my God, calm down!

And it also gets a little repetitive, as later it says:

Charlotte suddenly wanted to run away. From Fran. From The Manor. From expectations.

“Suddenly?” Are you serious? She’s been saying that she wants to run away and go on adventures since the book started! How is that sudden, now?

As for Frances Caldwell, Charlotte’s best friend, I didn’t like her. I saw her as the model of everything Charlotte is supposed to be, or at least, what everyone expects her to be. She wants all those things Charlotte should want, but doesn’t, like fine dresses, social etiquette, snagging a rich husband, and being the mistress of her own household, as she bosses around the Manor’s servants, like she owns it. But other than that, she has no essence, no personality, and no passion for anything. Although I admit, I didn’t think she could be the one who ratted Charlotte out with her writing, simply because I thought her too snob to deign herself to go down the kitchen and do something –anything– in there.

As for the love stories in this book, we are back to Downton Abbey. The whole time I felt that Charlotte’s suitor, Andrew Broadhurst, it’s this book’s version of Matthew Crawley, a man who is set to inherit an earldom, but nevertheless, has plans to build his own life, away from the aristocracy and its demands. But apart from that I didn’t think he had much complexity and depth, with very little development in his personality, except what we see through Charlotte’s eyes. Also, he’s like Matthew in his role as the suitor who at first, is ignored, with a heroine that has absolutely no interest in him, but eventually, discovers that he’s more than just another seeker for her hand, and that, with the appropriate time and contact, she could actually love him. And that is the problem for me. The idea of her suddenly starting to fall in love with him, after trash-talking him for most the book, made impossible for me to buy their supposed romance. True, Andrew shows that he cares through his actions and that he’s there for more than just a convenient match between two wealthy families, but it wasn’t enough for me. I needed more scenes together, plenty of meaningful conversations, raw moments of honesty… Anything that could justify a love story. Plus, I thought the entire time he was plotting something with Fran and that everything would have terrible consequences for Charlotte. But at least, the ending isn’t ordinary, because they don’t get married and get their happy ending. Given that the book is YA, and both protagonists are sixteen, I really doubted it would happen. For both of them.

The storyline with Lawrence, the footman, was ok. Not great, but ok. I knew they wouldn’t end up together, simply because neither of them had any real interest in the other, beyond rebellion, with Lawrence taking advantage of his good looks and her naivety, and Charlotte kissing him for the sole thrill of adventure, the taste of doing something wrong in her perfectly mapped-out life, defined by others. It’s well done, but a part of me wishes that they would have actually fallen in love with each other, the scandal being worthy, for their happiness’ sake. Although, at least, the indiscretion added to Janie’s character development. When Charlotte talks to her about her fantasy of running away with Lawrence to live in the Côte d’Azur, at first I thought it was overly naïve, and very dramatic, but then I realized that, even though yes, she is all those things, it’s only natural for a lady whose only escape is her imagination, to think like this. To believe that life will go as smoothly as it does in her head. And when Janie reacted to all that, acted as an older, wiser sister, bringing her down to Earth and giving her a fresh, realistic look on her romantic ideas, with the notions of starvation, working your skin off, and struggling every day, things Charlotte is completely unaware of.

I liked Janie Seward, and the contrast between her and Charlotte, because they are the same age but come from very different worlds. They have different relationships with their mothers, in the sense that, where one of them wants to run away from her controlling attitude and disaffection, the other can’t stand the idea of a separation, of leaving her behind again. I liked how strong she is, and how realistic, in many ways Charlotte’s complete opposite, and yet, being the only one who could truly get to know her. I liked how she accepted her fully, even before knowing they were sisters, and with their differences, and was ready to be at her side at her worst. That is what true friends do. And I also liked Harry Peasgood, but I wish we had known more about him, other than his position in the house, and the fact that he always loved Janie, like some fond memories together, even fights! Anything, that could help me see the chemistry between them. That aspect was lacking for me. I just thought Janie wouldn’t return his affection, as she suddenly realizes her feelings for him, out of nowhere.

Another thing I didn’t quite like was the general lifestyle for the people downstairs. I get that they had to take care of their jobs, but not to the point of hating each other like that. The only ones who seemed to truly like Janie were her mother, and Harry, because her relationship with the other servant girls consisted on one fight after another. It was like seeing a bunch of jealous cats hissing at each other, showing their claws, and attempting to scratch each other’s eyes out from time to time, being mean to each other, but nothing else. No personality development whatsoever, nor another part on the general plot than being mean to Janie.

Finally, a word on Lady Diane, Charlotte’s mother/aunt. She’s a robot. Her entire essence, for most of the book, is her social standing, her image in front of her guests and social peers, and scolding Charlotte, reminding her of all the rules she should be following. Her depth was there, but I don’t think the author wrote it well enough. I mean, Lady Diane, by the end, claimed she always loved Charlotte, even when she wasn’t her real daughter, but she was afraid of losing her to her sister, had she ever decided to tell the truth. And I think that, if she had shown some more affection, that would have made Charlotte much less of a dreamer, and much less eager to leave when the opportunity arose. As for Lady Beatrice, she came dragging the scandal rumour with her, but it was half the book, and she hadn’t even been in a relevant scene, nor said anything remotely important, and led not to care enough about her being Charlotte’s real mother the way I was supposed to. I didn’t know her. Nothing made me grow fond of her, to be glad about the truth when it came out. But I did like her attitude towards women’s rights and her inclination towards change in the world, doing what Lady Diane never did, that was encouraging her daughter to use her talents for something meaningful, instead of punishing her for it. The fact of having a character like Lady Beatrice, that even with her unfortunate love story, her scandalous secret pregnancy and her life far away from her child, could fend for herself, living in Italy, and becoming a suffragette and a feminist, made marriage and impossible ending for this book, other than both Charlotte and Janie being too young.

So, in short, I liked this book, but I didn’t love it. It was entertaining, dramatic, and in general, a good, quick read; but little more than that. I definitely expected more, although I’m ok with what I got instead. I don’t know if I’ll read more by Katherine Longshore, but I won’t discard her work right away. If I do read another book by her, I just hope it’s better than this one.


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