The Children's Hour by Marcia Willett
I picked this book up from a Bookcrossing point in Derby and prior to this I had not heard of this author. Marcia was born in Somerset on August 6 1945 the same day that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. She was the youngest of five girls .Marcia had wanted to train as a ballet dancer but this wasn't to be, so she studied to be a ballet teacher instead.
Her first husband was a naval officer with whom she had a son, Charles. Her second husband, Rodney, was himself a writer and broadcaster and it was he who encouraged Marcia to write novels. She has written quite a few novels mostly based in Devon I understand.
This book is a cosy and comfortable read with good characterization. It is set in the South West of England in Devon and the countryside plays an important role in the novel as a backdrop to the action. Anyone who knows this part of England will feel that they recognise the little towns and villages and coves described in the book.
From the Back Cover
"In the big old house overlooking the sea, five small children listened as their mother read them a story. Theirs was an idyllic childhood, as they played on the beach and in the gardens and woods, before the war - and other tragedies - disrupted their lives. Now, many years later, Nest and Mina still live at Ottercombe, their beautiful childhood home, surrounded by their dogs and the beauty of the Devon countryside, thrilled by the occasional visits of their nephew and especially beloved niece.
But when their sister Georgie, now somewhat frail and forgetful, comes to stay at Ottercombe, memories of their past start to revisit them. As a child, Georgie claimed to know all their secrets - secrets that she now wants to share..."
So here we have the seeds of a pleasant 'aga-saga' type of family story, and that's what I was expecting; something similar to Rosamunde Pilcher, Mary Wesley and that type of read. This book was generally an enjoyable heart-warming story that had interesting characters I could warm to and a satisfactory ending.
I found the novel a gentle read with a very English feel, a bit like the film 'Ladies in Lavender'. The family was middle class and very English countryside. They had dogs with ridiculous names such as 'Captain Cat', 'No Good Boyo' and 'The Bosun'. I also found the names of the characters a bit twee. The girls were all given names that could be shortened to boy's names by an Edwardian father who wanted boys not girls. So we have Ernestina, Wilhelmina, Georgina Josephina and Henrietta whose names were shortened by their father to Ernest, Will, George, Joe and Henry. The rather odd names came from a friend of their father's who became very close to the family and re-named them, Mina, Nest, Georgie , Josie and I forget what Henrietta became. I found Nest a name that just didn't sound like a proper name, I kept thinking of a bird's nest every time I read it. (I sound just like my Grandmother who used to say that about modern names and we would laugh at her!)
There was quite a good story but I did find the number of characters a bit overwhelming and this became more confusing as some characters shared names. The mother of the girls was called Lydia and so was a granddaughter, Father's friend was called Timothy and so was the one son of the original family. So we have the original family father and mother (Lydia) and they have five daughters and a son (Timmy). The main character of the book is Mina, one of the original daughters who looked after her mother until her death and now cares for Nest (her sister) who is in a wheel chair as the result of a car accident. Another sister (Georgie) who is waiting to be admitted to a nursing home comes to stay for a while prior to this happening.
Mina and Nest live in a lovely old house, Ottercombe that has become comfortable and in need of modernization not far from a beach in the cove. Mina is the lynch pin of the family and the person who has supported both her mother and her sister through their health problems and is a strong, independent but very caring and sensitive older lady.
The story is really based on the family and its history and various problems. What I did find quite clever was the way the author built in a bit of suspense about some 'secret' that is referred to by different family members and it isn't until near the end that we find out what the 'secret' is and how it has impacted upon all their lives. There is a second story that weaves into the first as Lydia (the niece not the mother) and her handsome and rather too charming struggle through their first years of marriage and running a successful restaurant. There is a third story that is mentioned in passing and this one only finally ties up neatly at the end of the book which was a surprise and I certainly didn't see that coming. In fact I barked up the wrong tree with the 'secret' too but I might just be a bit thick!
Another supportive character is Jack, son of Timothy (Timothy -the son not the father's friend) and he is happily married to a wonderful wife and they have two children. He is a teacher at a private school and Jack and his wife have some of the younger boys living with them during term time. They are terribly sweet and all too wonderfully private school and middle class but at the same time they are good supporting characters and you do get beyond the sugary sweetness as we discover they role is that of support to the family members who need help.
All in all it is an aga saga with the real aga in the kitchen and they do enjoy cups of 'nice, hot tea' from time to time. There is no sex, at least none that is explicit and talked about beyond words like 'affair' and resultant babies. There is no violence apart from the 'war' that is talked about in rather hushed tones so as not to upset the 'littlies', some family members do die but once again images are glossed over and blurred like an old photograph rather than described in sordid detail.
This is probably not a book that I would have bought but I have found some really interesting and different books through Bookcrossing, this being one. This is a story of friendships lost and found and of everyday family life with a few twists and turns. As the book develops you learn more about their griefs and problems and I did find myself quite hooked and wanting to know what had happened in the past. The characters were a mixed bunch, some more realistic than others but they were well portrayed and I could empathize with some of them.
As the book is set in middle class England at the time of the Second World War till today so it would appeal to a wide age range of readers. The descriptions of the English countryside evoked images of a time almost forgotten when you took your wicker basket with your picnic to the beach. This is s a gentle read but there is enough going on to hold the reader's interest. I thought it was well written and had a real feeling of nostalgia about it. Having said all that, I do not feel inclined to rush out looking for more of Marcia Willetts's books. I would read another if I found it free but would not pay full price as it was not really the sort of book that I usually look forward to reading.
The retail price on Amazon for this book is 5.49but you can get it for 1p plus £2.75 P&P second hand. The ISBN number is 978-0552150620. I'm not sure of the number of pages as I have now passed the book on through Bookcrossing but it was quite a quick and easy read.
Thank you for reading .This review may be published on other websites under my same user name.