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Despite going for a bad-ass rock chick identity in life, one of my secret vices is period romance stories. I love nothing more than a good Austen, Bronte, Gaskell or Eliot novel that whisks you back to a time when woman were thought of as fragile creatures to be married off to older, rich gentlemen and society revolved around the next ball to gossip over salacious scandals. Oh and there were often some poor people too. These stories are naturally as authentic as you can get to gain insight into 19th Century life and it takes a skilled contemporary novelist to spin a yarn from those days yonder in a similarly realistic way but since I do thoroughly enjoy reading about the Regency and Victorian periods I'm always on the lookout for a good tale. "The House of Women" by Anne Brear seemed to fit the bill nicely - regaling an epic tale of tragedy and suffering, selflessness and unrequited love and even a dalliance with murder, this sounded like it had the potential to be a darkly romantic page turner.
Grace Woodruff has been handed a bum deal in life, the eldest of 7 daughters with no male heir in sight, stuck under the thumb of a selfish, abusive and unscrupulous father and an equally selfish and weak mother she has been left to run the household and look after her 6 sisters practically by herself whilst staring down the tragic face of spinsterhood. Things begin to unravel as her father's infidelity, cruelty and dodgy business dealings, including poor investments and trying to marry his daughters off one by one, threaten the very respectability of the family name and bring upon them impending financial doom. To make matters worse her first love returns...betrothed to another...and she faces heart breaking rejection. As the dark clouds start to gather and fate begins to deal out more cruel hands, can Grace find a way to save her family and even find love in her world divided by class, or will she be pulled under into a maelstrom of despair?
Sadly, the way I have described the premise is way more exciting than it truly is. One of the biggest problems for me was that all these exciting things were happening in the Woodruff's lives - the threat of marriage to horrendous men, illegitimate children, alcoholism, unrequited and forbidden love and unexpectedly tragic deaths but once these dramatic events had occurred there was no follow through, no exploration of the consequences, the plot simply moved rather hurriedly onto the next event as if the author were trying to cram as much in as possible for maximum excitement but which for me actually detracted from the drama as nothing really came of anything. I wouldn't describe this book as boring on account of all the plot twists, but for me it failed to live up to its promise and actually be a gripping read as I just couldn't connect with it. It also feels as though the author has been greatly influenced by many of the old classics, for example, a family made up all of daughters (Pride and Prejudice), class differences hindering love (North and South), crazy wives (Jane Eyre) and I also struggled to find anything overly original about the story.
So, despite attempts to make the story as tumultuous as possible the biggest disappointment I felt was the lameness of the romance. There was the real potential for some intense love entanglements of Jane Austen proportions with an obvious choice for a love triangle and who should end up victorious but it just fizzled into nothing and there were no male characters to swoon dreamily over (like good old Mr Darcy) as they were either somewhat flawed or simply underdeveloped. In fact, seemingly all the "romance" was just for practical or political purposes and ultimately unmemorable or had an overly rushed feeling to it to be particularly affecting. William Ross, Grace's first love, was sadly dull like dishwater and failed to get the heart fluttering and Doyle, the butler, was easily the best shot at a decent male hero and his noble actions certainly placed him in the best light, but his story was wasted in my opinion as the plot went off in a completely different and less satisfactory direction than I was hoping for sadly with the intended impact of his journey falling short of the mark as a result. There were a few other decent male characters that had potential, but were never really fleshed out enough to gain any affinity with.
The standout character of Grace, our heroine, was very likeable, remaining selfless despite all the selfishness and tragedies surrounding her, and she was positively inspirational with her strength in the face of adversity dispelling the fragile female stereotype of the age, and frankly you would have to be a Gorgon not to root for her throughout and yet there was something that felt slightly contrived about the distasteful nature of pretty much all her family, although this encumbrance certainly had the intended effect of increasing her trials and tribulations tenfold. However, as I mentioned before it was hard not to see parallels with Pride and Prejudice to a certain extent which is why maybe it all felt a little forced to me. Maybe I'm reading way too much into but I couldn't help comparing the characters of a very silly and self-absorbed mother, several foolish and selfish sisters with one more sensible, close one to Grace with those from Pride and Prejudice which perhaps also hindered my belief in the relationship dynamics in this particular story. Yet, the villainous character of Montgomery Woodruff, the cruel patriarch of the family was one of the better characters, who even though a little over the top, symbolised everything wrong in Grace's life which made him one of those characters you love to hate so he was an excellent creation.
On a positive note I do think the period, set in the 1870s, was captured pretty vividly with well written and descriptive scenes of a bustling house run by servants nicely contrasted against the rural and downtrodden life of the lower classes and what was interesting (and often lacking in the genuine classics set in the period) was a look at how businesses actually worked and money was made, particularly with the mining industry, rather than it just magically appearing with a gentlemen having "but ten thousand a year". Also, the nuances of the society of that time felt very fitting with what we know about this period, with their relentless zest for balls and gossiping, and the fickle and supercilious way these upper classes will relinquish all connection with a family if scandals befall them. A real attempt to make the dialogue as realistic as possible was also evident throughout with a very old fashioned air to it, even if perhaps some modern dialogue occasionally accidentally crept in, for example, "My father will not tolerate it.", "Bugger your father!" - blimey, I had to whip a fan out to cool myself off and prevent a bout of fainting with that one.
Ultimately, I feel the target audience for this book would probably be the female of the species that love classic period romances, but I found the romance element severely lacking in this story, and there wasn't enough realistic drama to really make up for that vacuum so I was a tad underwhelmed and not overly gripped by this story and found myself constantly losing interest. There were a lot of echoes from some of the more famous classics such as Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre which certainly gave this story a slightly clichéd and less than original feel to it which was a shame, but these influences certainly helped to create a fairly realistic setting which was a big plus for this story. It certainly wasn't all bad with a strong female protagonist and plenty of darkness and nasty twists that stopped this being a sappy fairy tale and attempted to make for an exciting plot, but I just had a hard time connecting on an emotional level and actually believing in it. I'm not sure I would recommend this book, but many people disagree with me with plenty of 4 of 5 star ratings on Amazon so maybe it is just not my cup of tea.