Thursday, February 9, 2012

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

If you are enjoying the PBS Masterpiece Classic series, Downton Abbey, chances are you would also appreciate The House at Tyneford: a Novel (Plume, 2011) by Natasha Solomons. Similarities include the upstairs-downstairs nature of the story, as well as a grand manor house, though the Tyneford house is much less grand.

The inherent drama of the book involves transplanting one privileged young Austrian woman, Elise Landau, from her home in Vienna to Tyneford, England right before World War II. There she will serve as a house maid, no matter that she grew up with servants herself. In an author's note, we learn that many refugees took domestic service visas in order to escape the march of the Nazis. The Landaus are Jewish, and they are scrambling to relocate. Her father is a novelist, her mother and sister both musicians, all three hoping to get to America.

Of course Elise is most resistant to this new undertaking. She arrives in Tyneford with no idea of how to clean or cook and must be especially accommodated by the housekeeper, butler, et al. Her benefactor is Mr. Rivers, a fan of her father's novels. What he doesn't know is that among Elise's possessions she has hidden her father's newest manuscript inside a treasured viola. The viola, a fancy gown, a small stash of gold and her mother's pearls are really all she has to hold onto from her family's past. She lives for their letters and struggles to learn her new role in life.

Tyneford is a lovely place, especially because of its proximity to the Dorset coast. Elise finds to salt air reviving, and things pick up for her when only son and heir Kit Rivers returns home from boarding school. A few years older than her, Kit is quite the charmer and could have his pick among the ritziest girls of England. But he falls in love with Elise. And that is where I will stop with plot details, for fear of spoiling it for anyone. Okay, a bit more: as you can imagine, Elise's place in the household undergoes a sea change when her relationship with Kit deepens. And then World War II really escalates and all the characters are caught up in various calls to action.

Also reminiscent of Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Anne Schaffer and Annie Barrows, The House at Tyneford is one of those good old-fashioned reads made all the more fascinating by the fact that it is inspired by the authors great-aunt Gabi Landau's story. She escaped Europe and worked as a mother's helper during the late 1930s. Fictional Tyneford is based on a village called Tyneham, which fell under strategic British military occupation during the war. A good blend of romance, suspense and history, The House at Tyneford will surely command and delight readers for generations to come.

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