This is a book I choose at the library the other week. The reason I picked the Memory Palace was after I had enjoyed a book by the same author so I had high hopes of a good history book with good characterisation.
About the Author
She was born in America but lived in several countries as a child including Thailand and Switzerland. She attended Harvard University. She now lives in London. As well as writing novels she also writes plays and libretti for opera. If you want to read more about her I suggest you go to her webpage www.christiedickason.com
About the book
This is the final book in the Lady Tree Trilogy. This is set in the turbulent time just before the English Civil War; these books tell the on-going story of John Nightingale and Zeal Beester. The author claims that these books "stand alone and may be read in any order" I would have to disagree with that when I picked this book up I wasn't aware it was in a trilogy and thought it was a stand alone novel. The book just launches into the story of re-building the house with no build up of the characters making it hard for you to initially understand what is happening.
The book takes place between 1639-1644 as the chaos of Civil War approaches in Britain. Zeal Beester, is mistress of a rolling Hampshire estate called Hawkridge the main house has just burnt down. She has been left by her lover pregnant, unwed, as the King has banished him to the New World (we are not told why in the book). The Puritan Dr Gifford has huge amount of animosity towards Zeal and would have her burnt at the stake for her depravity (being an unwed mother). To save herself and the unborn child from this fate, Zeal chooses to become the wife of Philip Wentworth, an ageing soldier and adventurer and the estates hermit. To woo Zeal Philip spins extraordinary tales of El Dorado that he claims to have visited in his younger days. This only reminds Zeal of her exiled lover. Zeal decides to rebuild Hawkridge House as the "Memory Palace". By this she means the house will be the secret map of her heart and thoughts, "part maze, part theatre, part great country house". However through the rebuilding of this house Zeal enrages the Puritans and inspires some one to launch a campaign of hatred against her.
I have to admit I had high hopes for this book but they were never meet by it and I found it a disappointing read compared to the other novel I had read by this author. The flow and structure of the book seemed very disjointed to me. There would be chapters at times that flowed and had focus, and then suddenly we would leap several months into the future with no explanation for what had happened in between and this would leave you guessing about the characters actions and how they had reach the different positions within the story. Characters would suddenly appear and as the reader you would expected to know where they fitted into the story. I found the entries in the novel about Zeal's workbook though interesting, didn't for me add anything to the novel and was a distraction to the flow of the novel. There is a strong sense through out the book of the author's hatred of the Puritan's actions of closing the theatres and banning music at this point in history. At times this bias I think detracts from the flow and structure of the novel as it makes the characters and their beliefs seem very one dimensional and the stuff of pantomime villains. You can certainly understand the author's bias due to her work as a director in theaters and a playwright but in my opinion it makes the novel less rounded and more contrived. The scenes in the theatre towards the end of the book should have been full of suspense and wonder but they lacked something which I can't fully identify. It may be just by then that I had lost interest in the book and the characters so couldn't identify with the action or care for the outcome.
In regards to the characters within the novel I never warmed to the main character Zeal. There are lots of reasons to like Zeal she has incredible willpower to accomplish her tasks and this can be seen as an example of the need to drive one's own life to create great accomplishments. But despite this apparent strong female protagonist, I never warmed to her due to the many juxtaposition in her character. I felt this made her seem unbelievable to me I think one of the elements that made her unbelievable is that she didn't seem to fit into her time or generation. As I didn't find her a credible character I found myself being a dispassionate reader to her many trials and tribulations and unable to summon any sympathy or even care about the outcome of them
This contrasted with the character Philip who was one of the few characters I found myself actually liking within this book. The author writes some of his inner turmoil in a way that engages you as a reader and makes you want to help him. You do will him on in his quest to earn Zeal's heart however undeserving you feel she is of it. That said I don't think she developed his character enough you would often find him doing things that from what you knew of him in this book didn't seem to fully fit some how in the way the author had penned him.
Dr Gifford was the worst characterization within the book he seemed to be one dimensional and made flitting appearances to voice his Puritanical views. He reminded me in some ways of a pantomime villain and a cardboard caricature, because you never felt the author had written him as a human being merely as a tool to illustrate all that was wrong in the Puritan movement. An example of this was his actions by halting the wedding to Phillip because of the decoration within the church
There are positives within the novel including the author's magnificent historical research. She certainly appeared to depict admirably the life on a working estate at the time of the civil war, with its worries about food and labour and general uncertainties that everyone had about where other people's loyalties lay. She also captured and painted a vivid picture of the plight of a single woman at that time and the limited choices and controls they had in their life. The few mentions to witch trails appeared to be sensitively handled as were the depictions of the views of homosexuality at the time. Her portrayal of the building of a house to my limited knowledge of historical architecture does seem to be accurate and it certainly added some interest to the book for myself.
As I found this novel hard going and it was certainly not a book I would stay up late at night to read, indeed I picked up a few other books and read them before I finished this book. Because of this I wouldn't recommend it to others especially as a stand alone novel. If you do want to read it I suggest borrowing it from the library incase you don't enjoy it either so you don't waste your money and read it in order of the trilogy.
Paperback: 512 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd; New Ed edition (5 April 2004)
Available currently on Amazon market place for £ 2.29