* Prices may differ from that shown
Miss Read is looking forward to her summer holidays from school and is preparing to spring clean the house when she takes a tumble downstairs, injuring her wrist and ankle quite badly. An independent lady reluctant to accept help, she is eventually forced to accept that she needs it and lets her old college friend, Amy, look after her. But Amy has troubles of her own. Her philandering husband seems to be serious about his latest lover and is talking about divorce. The two friends decide to go to Crete for some rest and recuperation. Days of walking along the beach and wondering about the mountain village do them both a lot of good, but on their return home, Amy still has to face up to her marriage problems. Will she win her husband back? Or is she better off without him?
This is a departure in setting for Miss Read's Fairacre series, of which she has written twenty or so books between 1955 and 1996. Most of her books are set entirely in Fairacre, a Cotswold village and deal with the many personalities therein, so to take the story to Crete is really something different. To be honest, I was dubious about how it would work; I needn't have worried though. I've been to Crete myself and know how stunning it is, and Miss Read more than did it justice. She describes the scenery and the lovely local restaurants with their fresh ingredients perfectly and it was a real joy to read. And for fans of the local residents of Fairacre, there is no need to worry, because the trip to Crete only takes the middle third of the book; at both ends of the book, all the usual characters and the gentle, every day stories that Miss Read tells are still there in all their glory.
Miss Read is a lovely character, although she is so terribly English that I can imagine some non-Brits would find her hard to understand. She is single, always has been, and has every intention of continuing that way - Amy's marriage problems just remind me of how lucky I am. Her independence doesn't stop her from having plenty of friends, although she does seem to have a problem discussing sensitive issues - after all the years she has known Amy, she still struggles to ask her directly about her marriage problems. It is a small price to pay though, because apart from that, she is a gentle woman who really cares for those around her - most particularly her charges at school - and comments on them with a wit that is a joy to read. I should note here that although Miss Read is also the name of the author, the character in the book is only based on the author's own experience, rather than a direct representation of her own life.
Amy doesn't live in Fairacre itself, and so is usually not a character who features very heavily in the books. This one is different though, and we get to see quite a different side of her. Amy can be quite annoying. She is married to James - the marriage is usually described as being happy - and can't understand why Miss Read is content to be alone. She also has a great deal more money and is always dressed immaculately. In this book, we get to see another side of her, a more humble one as she realises that her marriage may be about to fall apart. Her bossiness is much less evident, as is her desire to fix Miss Read up with someone appropriate - although that does still slip in occasionally. I liked this Amy and thought that her change in circumstance was very well handled.
Most of Miss Read's books revolve around village life and the problems that go on there - to be honest, most of these problems are not really very major - at least not compared to the crime fiction books I am so fond of. In Farther Afield, things do become a little more serious though. Obviously, there is Amy's situation, but there is also a heartbroken niece of Amy to contend with, and the fact that Miss Read's accident brings home to her just how fragile she is while living alone. I could particularly identify with the latter issue - I also live alone, and having fallen down the stairs a few weeks ago and frightened myself to death, I understood just how she felt. Once again, Miss Read manages to hit the nail on the head.
There is no doubt that some people will find the book very old-fashioned. Written in 1974, life and society weren't quite the same and there are times when even I found it out of date. Amy's marriage to James is the most notable issue here. James' philandering and Amy's loyalty is treated almost as if it is acceptable - obviously everyone's marriage is their own concern, but I felt that in this day and age, everyone would be much more likely to advise Amy to leave her husband to it. It certainly isn't the first time he's had an affair. Miss Read herself doesn't approve, but keeps her silence, presumably knowing that society would prefer that Amy stayed with her husband. Then again, it does make a pleasant change from the usual divorces and splits of today's society!
The writing is excellent, flowing along perfectly. Miss Read writes very well, her prose seems literary, yet is very economical with few pretentiously long words. I am a great admirer of this style of writing - I think it is hard to be descriptive and get one's meaning across without rambling, and Miss Read certainly does not do this. Of course, this does mean that the book is very short, and some may prefer a meatier tome, but I like it just the way it is. The chapters are nice and short too, which makes it perfect for dipping in and out of.
Anyone who is looking for an exciting read is not going to get it here. I suppose it is nineteen seventies chick lit, although I suspect it was considered old-fashioned and homely even back then and there is no happy ever after at the end. It is most certainly very clean and innocent. However, I like this. I like the insight into ordinary people living ordinary lives, and the fact that both Fairacre and Crete are full of beauty and interesting characters is a real bonus. Rebecca Shaw's work is perhaps the modern equivalent, although I don't think it is anywhere near as good. If you want a gentle read and to be reminded of an apparently more innocent age, then you can't go far wrong with this book. Highly recommended.
The book is available from Amazon for £4.59. Published by Orion, it has 208 pages. ISBN-10: 0752882333