I had lots of reasons to think I would love this book:
- It’s set in a small Scottish town, early in the 20th century.
- It’s is a collaboration between sister authors I writers working together always intrigue me.
- It’s a Virago Modern Classic, and Liz and Ali both loved it.
I did love it. I can’t say that its a great book, but it is a lovely period piece.
Alexandra Hope lives in Crossriggs with her father. He is generous to a fault, he loves to help people and to try new things but he rarely stops to consider practicalities; and so the family is rather poorer than it might be. She is bright, spirited and unconventional. Marriage doesn’t appeal to Alex, and she turned down a proposal from a rather dull man who was deemed a good catch; but that didn’t mean she didn’t worry about her family’s situation.
Her worries increase when her recently widowed sister comes home from Canada with her five young children. Alex loves her sister and adores her nieces and nephews, but she knows that she will have to find a way to keep the family afloat. Matilda is rather more conventional than her sister, but she is almost as oblivious to practicalities as her father and she blithely assumes that everything will be alright.
Alex finds that she can earn a little money by reading to the Admiral Cassilis of Foxe Hall, the family’s blind, aristocratic neighbour. She does her job very well and that leads her to other jobs that require a lovely speaking voice.
It also leads her to a friendship with Van Cassilis, the Admiral’s nephew. It quickly becomes clear Van has deeper feelings than friendship for Alex, but those feelings are not reciprocated. She knows that he is younger than her, she doesn’t think his feelings will last, and, most significantly, she has already lost her heart to another.
Alex is in love with Robert Maitland, another neighbour who has rather more money and social standing than the hopes. He is fond of her, he is her wisest counsellor and her moral compass, but as he is married Alex knows that her she can never speak of or act on her feelings.
I was inclined to like Alex. She was a wonderfully imperfect heroine; walking a fine line between idealism and realism; pride and humility; compassion and causticity; reserve and outspokenness.
There were so many characters that were so very well drawn. I’ve mentioned some of them already, I can’t mention them all, but I can’t leave out Robert Maitland’s Aunt Elizabeth – known as Aunt E.V by everyone in Crossriggs – who was a wonderful matriarchal figure, or Miss Bessie Reid, who was no longer young, who had to look after a very elderly aunt, but who still dreamed of romance.
I believed in them all, and I believed in their village community.
The Hope household was poor but it was never dull. The children were bright and entertaining, the family patriarch – who would always by known as ‘Old Hopeful’ – was a welcoming host, and there were lots of lovely outings and much fun to be had.
The Findlater sisters must have taken such care over the characters, the community and the stories that they created. I loved them all.
I particularly loved the beautiful evocation of the changing seasons.
The story was beautifully positioned between two different eras. Much of it feels wonderfully Victorian, but Alex is quite clearly a ‘New Woman’ caught up in small town life,
The influences were clear. There are definite echoes of a particular Jane Austen novel in the characters and the relationships, and there were something in the style and in the drawing of the community that told me that the sisters must have read and loved Trollope too.
The writing style seemed fluctuate, the plot was rather uneven, but because there were so many good things, because I was so caught up, I could forgive that.
The story moved slowly for a long time, but in the later chapters all of the storylines came to a head.
Alex and Van fall out, and he makes a reckless decision that will have irreversible consequences. There’s a villainess in the mix here, and I’m afraid she was the one character I couldn’t quite believe in. Maybe because she came into this world from outside …
The unhappy loss of her friend, the pressure of the work she has taken on to support her family, takes its toll on Alex. Her physical health, her emotions and her mental health all begin to fray.
There was a suggestion that another relationship could change.
I saw an obvious ending, but there were one or two twists in the tail of this story, before it came to a conclusion that I hadn’t expected but thought was completely right.