Having very much enjoyed Natasha Solomons's "Mr. Rosenblum's List' I picked up a copy of her second novel 'The Novel in the Viola' with hardly a glance at the cover blurb. I can't say that the cover illustration appealed at all, giving the impression of a dowdy romance, but I felt certain that an author capable of producing such an enjoyable first novel must have more to offer.
The author uses her family history to inspire her novels. The eponymous Mr. Rosenblum had come to England as a young man, bringing his wife and baby daughter from Germany in the 1930s to escape the Nazis and, having worked hard to establish a successful business in London's East End, retires to the English countryside where he hopes to build his own golf course because it's the only way, as a Jew, that he can become a member of one.
'The Novel in the Viola' is inspired by an aunt of Solomons who, like many Jewish women, some of them from very wealthy families (and often titled) took up jobs as maids in large houses in Great Britain in order to flee persecution from the Nazis.
The heroine is Elise, the younger daughter of a slightly bohemian Viennese-Jewish family. Her mother, Anna, is a celebrated opera singer, while her father, Julian, is a respected writer of intellectually highbrow novels. The Landau's move in glittering company but all that changes with the union of Austria with Germany. Like so many of their friends, the Landau's try to secure visas to get out of the country and escape persecution. Anna and Julian have been promised sponsorship by a New York opera company if Anna agrees to sing there. Elise's sister, Margot, a talented viola player, and her academic husband, Robert, have got visas to go to California where Robert will take up a teaching post at a prestigious university. The only option open to Elise is to find a position in domestic service in England; she knows a little of the language and with no special skills to rely on she'll be lucky to get anything. She places an advertisement in the Times and soon after receives a letter offering her a position at Tyneford Hall. Before she leaves, Julian asks Elise to take with her the viola that her sister used to play; hidden inside the body of the instrument Elise later discovers hidden inside the body of the instrument the manuscript of an unpublished novel.
At first Elise is painfully homesick but when Kit, the happy go lucky son of the squire Mr. Rivers, comes home from university, things start to look up. She's not really a servant but neither is she part of the Devon society that the Rivers mix in but against the odds Elise and Kit fall in love and even the stern Mr. Rivers falls under Elise's charm., doing what he can to try to find a way out of Austria for Anna and Julian whose visas have not arrived from America, leaving them trapped in the Vienna ghetto. But then the war comes and Elise is in danger of losing the little bit of happiness she has made for herself. All the while Elise can not stop thinking of her family and eventually she opens up the viola, unprepared for what she finds.
This was an aspect of the holocaust of which I knew very little so I found it very interesting reading. Elise has led a privileged life before coming to England, one where she was the one being waited on, so she is faced not only with being in a foreign country, unsure of the fate of her family, but also learning how to be a housemaid. Considering the popularity of Downton Abbey, this novel should do well. It focuses heavily on the business and hierarchy of the English country house and looks at how the war impacts on the household. The historic detail is nicely worked in and gives rich colour to the story.
Solomons writes beautifully; the opening section which culminates in a party, ostensibly to bid farewell to Elise, but really a tacit 'auf wiedersehen' to the safety and security that the wealthy Viennese Jewry have enjoyed for many years, is very moving in an understated way, heightened by knowing what lies in store. There's a case for saying that there are about one hundred pages too many but this is good reading so it's perhaps churlish to complain. It's not great 'literature' veering too often towards 'chick lit' but there's plenty to grab the attention.
I don't usually find love stories particularly inspiring and I will admit to having had reservations based purely on the cover (there are two and mine looks very 'Mills and Boon') but I found this one quite fun in that there are echoes of famous romantic novels throughout the story. The ending is judiciously telegraphed from early on but there are enough surprises on the way to compensate.
Where I find Solomons frustrating is in the patchy skill with which she creates her characters. Elise is a brilliant character and certainly a memorable one; the way she changes through the story is credible and I found myself really caring what happened to her. The other characters, on the other hand, are straight from 'Upstairs Downstairs': Wrexham, the butler, is a carbon copy of Mr. Hudson and there's even a scullery maid, May, who like The Bellamy's drudge Ruby, leaves the big house to work in a munitions factory. Solomons can do better.
It's a beach read, but a good one overall. If you like 'Downton Abbey' this could be just up your street. I enjoyed it as much for the beautifully painted coastal backdrop as much as I found it an eye opening account of an aspect of the Holocaust I previously knew very little about.
Three stars may seem mean but ultimately it's an engaging read.
In the spring of 1938 Elise Landau arrives at Tyneford, the great house on the bay. A bright young thing from Vienna forced to become a parlour-maid, she knows nothing about England, except that she won't like it. As servants polish silver and serve drinks on the lawn, Elise wears her mother's pearls beneath her uniform, and causes outrage by dancing with a boy called Kit. But war is coming and the world is changing, and Elise must change with it.