It is lovely when you see than a book that you have seen praised, that you are sure that you will love, but that is impossible to find is being sent back into the world; and it is even lovelier when that book more than lives up to very high expectations.
This is the book that makes me say that, and it has been sent back into the world by the lovely Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of the Dean Street Press.
The story begins as Alison Penny wakes on her fortieth birthday in the family home that she inherited. She is unmarried and quite happy with her situation. She lives with Ada, an old family retainer who has become her housekeeper, friend and companion. Ada loves Alison dearly, she is very protective of her, and treats her as a beloved daughter, without ever forgetting that Alison is her employer. It is a state of affairs that the two women are very happy with.
Alison has never married and is quite happy with the way her life has turned out. She could have married, but her protective parents disapproved of George, and she accepted that they were right to stand in his way. He sent Alison a letter every year, timed to reach her on her birthday, and over the years they came from far and wide as George travelled far and wide and rarely stayed still.
There was no letter from George on Alison’s fortieth birthday. Ada was indignant but Alison decided that she should be philosophical: she would go out, to have lunch and to see a film.
Alison’s plan’s came to nothing, because she took a walk in the park. She saw a young woman who was clearly very upset, she turned away to allow her privacy and spare her embarrassment; but when she glanced back she saw that the young woman seemed intent on throwing herself into the duck pond and she knew she had to act. She decided that the local YWCA would be sure to care for her and get her back on her feet, but she found that they had no room and so she decided that all she could do was take her home and do that job herself.
The unfortunately named Miss Victoria Plum was wonderfully grateful.
I said you were either an angel or just plain crazy. Now I think you’re both. Maybe all angels are crazy. I wouldn’t know. I never met one before.
However, once she was installed in the bed in the spare room she showed no sign of reviving, shrinking back under the covers at the slightest hint that she might be able to make progress. Ada was cynical from the start, and as days passed by Alison began to think that she might be right.
Alison turned to her two dearest friends for advice. There was Stanley, who was a single man with a lovely home, where he had things exactly as he liked and was ministered to a marvellous housekeeper who understood him perfectly. And there was Hubert, the local vicar, whose life was not nearly so well ordered, and who struggled with his relationship with his teenage son. They listened, they expressed concern, but they didn’t quite understand the problem.
When Ada broke her ankle and Alison went down with a bad case of influenza, Miss Plum rallied. She cared for them both with a great deal of concern but rather a lack of competence.
Alison was grateful, but her anxiety about the young woman and the position she found herself in continued to grow.
Today was Miss Plum’s first day downstairs. How, then, had she been aware of the sofa bed in the breakfast room? How had she been able to lay hands with such unerring precision on teapot and tea caddy, milk, sugar and biscuits? How had she known where the spare hot-water bottles were kept?
Even when Ada and Alison had both recovered it seemed that their guest had become a fixture, and so many things happened to stop even a delicate question about her plans being asked. Miss Plum had been accepted into village life, Christmas was coming, and a quite unexpected visitor appeared ….
Miss Plum had sprung the tenderest trap of all – the trap of compassion – and they were all caught in it, helpless, bewildered.
There are many things that set this book above many of its peers.
The plot was beautifully constructed, and its mixing of cosiness with something that was rather darker was wonderfully effective.
I found it very easy to understand and emphasise with all of the characters, Alison most of all, especially when she knew that what she wanted was reasonable but she also knew that expressing or acting on her feelings would not be well received. All of the characters were real fallible human beings, who I knew must have had stories before this book began and would have stories after it ended.
The village felt just as real. It wasn’t a story-book village, it felt like a real village, that maybe my grandmother might have known somebody who lived there.
The telling of the story was lovely, it had both warmth and clarity, and it was clear that the story-teller had both the understanding of everything she wrote about and the wisdom to be unobtrusive,
All of the elements worked together so well, to make a very good story that held me from the first page to the last.