Written with the feel of the Victorian novel, this book is much more. The tone is sometimes light, sometimes romantic and sometimes tragic, but it is never overbearing. This book is about the memories of a house and the lives of the people who dwelled within it, during a time of terrible turmoil. All of them are well defined and interesting characters who come to life on the page.
It begins in Austria, during the early years of Hitler’s onslaught. The dangers facing the Jews are just beginning. Their plight and possible escape routes are explored and painted realistically so that the menacing situation is truly experienced. The Jewish question is dealt with as a theme, and it, along with the coming war, moves the story along.
The time is 1938 and Vienna is no longer a safe haven for Jews. Although they formerly thought of themselves as Viennese Jews, they soon discovered that they were simply Jews to the third Reich and nothing more. Humiliations and deprivations were heaped upon them, and those that could began to leave and go to other countries. Elise Landau’s parents were waiting for their visa to America, her sister Margo had married and was leaving for California, but she, unable to secure a visa, was to become a servant in a manor home in England.
Afraid and alone, unsure of her next move, she departs by train for her new life. Instead of being served and waited upon, as she was used to, she would now be the servant in Tyneford House for the Rivers family, simply because she was a Jew, unable to remain safely in her own country. She was hoping that her parents would soon be able to secure a visa for her and bring her to America too, but for now, she was to work there for a year. She was 19 and ill prepared for the future that faced her. However, she was accepted into the Rivers household, and although life was hard, it was a bit better than she expected it to be. Mr. Rivers, the master of Tyneford treated her kindly, and she soon met his very charming, eligible bachelor son, Kit. They were from different worlds, of different religions and different stations in life, but still, an easy relationship developed. There were some times, when Elise’s behavior, and the way she interacted with the other characters, left the reader wondering if it was plausible. Overall, though, the story depicted the history of events, fairly accurately.
The class divisions, between the gentry and the servants, was very clearly defined. The upper classes were waited upon and the lower classes served. However, they looked upon their profession with respect and everyone had a place and knew and respected it. Elise must now learn hers.
The book really illuminated the deprivation caused by war, the degradation of the normal rhythm of life, until finally, false hopes mixed with the realization that there was no escape from the reality of the war with its hardships amd suffering. The false hopes that lingered were just that, false hopes; the war would not end quickly, lives would be lost. As one group complained of its suffering, another suffered far worse. Only at the end would the true measure of the destruction be calculated.
All of the characters were well drawn, from the highly professional Mrs. Ellsworth and proper Mr. Wrexham to the friendly and sweet Poppy and petty and haughty Diana, from Elise and her talented family, sister Margo, and parents Julian and Anna, to carefree, rambunctious Kit and his highly respected and gentlemanly father, Christopher Rivers, the squire of Tyneford; they all came alive with the authors apt descriptions.
I loved the book. It was historic fiction, a war story and a romance novel. Every sentence was crafted carefully to provide a beautiful visual image. I walked on the sandy beach at Tyneford with Elise, I felt her trepidation on the train to England, I felt her fear for her parents’ safety as she waited in her attic room for letters, and I felt her happiness as she fell in love. I listened to the book in an audio version and found the reader to be so expressive and able to change her voice to match each character so well, that I was never confused and I felt all of their emotions, their joy, their sadness, their pain.